Can Newspapers Be Saved? Part 2: Potential Solutions

In my last post, I discussed the state of the union for newspapers. As we all know, newspapers have struggled to move their businesses and revenue online, and they have struggled to do it in a way that does not cause massive disruption. This has been discussed and agonized over by a number of writers […]

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In my last post, I discussed the state of the union for newspapers. As we all know, newspapers have struggled to move their businesses and revenue online, and they have struggled to do it in a way that does not cause massive disruption. This has been discussed and agonized over by a number of writers and industry people in the past decade.

A representative sample is an article in the New Yorker magazine by Eric Alterman titled “Out of Print” (The New Yorker, Mar 31, 2008), where the author wonders “who will have the distinction of publishing America’s last genuine newspaper. Few believe that newspapers in their current form will survive.” He goes on to talk about the success of such online news sites as The Huffington Post, which are seeing strong growth in usage and ad dollars while maintaining a much lower cost base than traditional newspapers.

It is clear that we will see continued upheaval at the newspapers: some will work to evolve their strategy and embrace online, some will consolidate, and some will fold. From a strategic point of view, some newspapers have embraced the need to change their approach, to diversify and to create an online presence.

You have examples like the Washington Post diversifying with Kaplan, New York Times acquiring, etc. So now that we see some newspapers building an online strategy, what is next? As some of these forward-thinking newspapers regroup, reorganize, reshuffle management ranks and eventually poke their head out of the fox hole, they will face a variety of important questions.

Today, let’s look at one important question facing the vast majority of newspapers: how do you recharge and begin to rebuild your advertiser and revenue base?

Here is one path forward for rebuilding advertising revenue:

  1. Defend your advertiser relationships. The newspaper’s largest asset is the advertiser relationship. The advertisers trust their newspaper sales rep, as that rep has been working with them for years or decades. It is natural that they would look to you to evolve how they spend their advertising budget. Tell them you are building a plan to drive high-quality leads and customers from both offline and online sources.
  2. Build next generation advertising packages for your local advertisers. It is about delivering high quality local leads to your customers at a reasonable price. This may include targeted online and offline advertising across a number of sources. You must embrace traffic outside of the online newspaper as part of this online solution, because your advertiser views broad exposure as an important part of the solution. You should consider including many online sources of local leads into your packages: Search; Internet Yellow Pages (like, and; Directories like; and other local traffic sources like Citysearch, AmericanTowns and other applicable vertical traffic. Don’t count on the offline and online newspaper alone to be enough.
  3. Make the phone ring. Most local advertisers want the phone to ring. So make sure there is a pay-per-phone-call component or call tracking component to your packages so you can prove the value when it comes time for that advertiser to sign a renewal. The renewal process will get much simpler if you are tracking all the leads you are driving for the customer: calls, emails, clicks to the advertiser’s Web site, etc.
  4. Keep it simple. It is important to keep the next generation packages simple so that your salespeople and the advertiser do not get confused. For example: “We have three packages: Calls, Clicks or Both. You can spend anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 per month. And we will provide you with monthly reports on your campaigns.” This alleviates the pain for an advertiser to have to think about managing and tracking their online marketing budget, which most businesses do not have the time or experience to do effectively.
  5. Invest in training your sales team. No sales team will effectively make the transition to selling online, leads-based packages or call-based packages without extensive training. This investment in training is critical to your success, and it will require a material amount of time and money to get it right. If your sales team can become trusted consultants to your advertisers, helping them with their online and offline marketing, you will win back these relationships.
  6. Incentivize your sales team to sell these new packages. If you introduce new products without incentivizing them appropriately, they will not succeed. The sales team will fall into the trap of selling what they know, which is offline. If you incentivize them to sell new packages that incorporate online or even call-based packages, they will follow the money and learn how to sell these next generation advertising products.

So let’s suspend disbelief and assume that someone out there sees an ounce of truth to what is discussed in this post. Where does a newspaper go for help in rebuilding relationships with advertisers, building these packages, supporting new products like call packages and lead-based packages, training the sales staff? Well, there are a number of service providers. There are larger players that have some scale, and there are a lot of upstarts that have nice powerpoints but have no experience in delivering large numbers of advertising packages effectively. Buyer beware.

John Keister is Chief Operating Officer, President and a member of the board of directors of Marchex. The Locals Only column appears on Mondays at Search Engine Land.

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John Keister

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