What to do with that dying newspaper

Last night we were playing brain-puzzlers with the boys at the dinner table, a little game where we tell stories and everyone has to guess the answer. Stumped when our turn came up, we offered an old chestnut.

“What’s black and white and read all over?”

Big pause.

“A newspaper.”

Another big pause.

“Dad,” one of the boys said, “newspapers are color. And we don’t read them.”

Hmm. In case you missed it, The New Yorker profiled the impending death of newspapers in its March 31 issue. The facts: Newspaper stocks are down 42% in the past three years. Newspapers have lost one out of four jobs in the past 18 years. The rice bowl of newspaper revenue, classified ads, is disappearing into Craigslist. The Washington Post, in one sign of desperation, has rebranded itself as an education and news company — and its teaching division Kaplan now brings in half the financial bacon.

The New Yorker summed up:

“The dwindling number of Americans who buy and read a daily paper are spending less time with it; the average is down to less than fifteen hours a month. Only nineteen per cent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four claim even to look at a daily newspaper. The average age of the American newspaper reader is fifty-five and rising.”

For marketers, this should be an A-HA moment. The trend has been coming for a decade, but only really took off in the past four years, and many advertising clients are reporting lower responses from print ads with surprise. What happened, they ask, with a sniff of hurt in their voice? Well, what’s going on is readers are bailing from smudgy newsprint as fast as you can say Huffington Post. And fewer readers mean fewer responses.

There are three solutions to making newsprint work in a declining market:

1. First, see if print is a viable vehicle for your audience and your product. Mediamark Research, a database of 26,000 U.S. consumers, their product usage, and their media consumption habits can provide forecasting on whether your target demographic reads newsprint. Selling plumbing repair to older homeowners? Great. Selling MP3 players to teenagers? Hmm. Try again.

2. Second, newsprint should be evaluated for true CPM in reaching your target — by factoring out geographic waste, and by estimating what the real circulation is that only reaches your target audience. Copies outside your zone, or free handouts in hotel rooms, don’t count. And for Pete’s sake, if a newspaper sales rep mentions “readership” instead of “circulation,” please laugh loudly into the telephone.

3. Third, you have to measure. It’s easy now to buy a block of 800 phone numbers, redirect to your main line, put a number in each ad, and get a read on the true cost per inquiry from each single component of your print campaign. If you aren’t measuring every aspect of the print portfolio, you won’t know which parts are working and which are not.

One thing is for certain — you don’t want to have your advertising strategy stand still as the newspaper industry begins to fold.

(Photo: Alex Clark)

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