Making Newspapers Matter: The Journey Back to Brand

(Note: This is the first in an occasional series of posts about newspapers, their loss of “voice” and relevance, and how they can regain both. You can find these posts under the category “Journalism Next.”)

I read a newspaper this morning. Stop the presses.

My primary computer is being repaired so I don’t have access to my RSS reader and my 60 or so feeds.  I can’t sync my iPod to download all my Podcast shows. I don’t watch television news unless there is a major event or crisis, I don’t have time to go to multiple web sites or set up the custom Google home page I should have set up months ago. I catch National Public Radio in the car or sometimes at the office, but it’s hard to multitask with Nina Totenberg talking about the Supreme Court and Congressional hearings.

So I read a newspaper and tried not to think of it as nostalgia. the paper felt warm and comforting, like the college sweatshirt you won’t throw away no matter how many stains it has. The sweatshirt isn’t about clothing; it’s about time and place. Another time, a simpler place.

The newspaper, too, has little to do with actual news and much to do with familiarity. That’s why, despite all the essays and death knells from leading industry professionals, many of those same professionals are trying to save newspapers.

Wither the Printed Word
Yes, Jeff Jarvis says newspapers and other print publications are “where words go to die.” Yet he works to help newspapers, to keep them relevant in print and online. He is passionate about journalism and protective of journalists. The same goes for Tim Porter, whose often “tough love” approach is meant to wake newspapers up, not drive them away.

There are countless others – Jay Rosen, Dan Gillmor, Leonard Witt, Steve Outing, Terry Heaton. They all agree newspapers have failed, but they are not ready to dance on the grave of print.

They may never admit it – and it may be impossible to understand if you have never worked in the news business – but I believe a part of them would miss the ink that rubs off on their fingers after reading the Sunday paper. They would open their doors and stare at their driveways out of habit, searching for the gray bundle that was always waiting – a world of words and ideas literally laid at their doorsteps.

Today’s world of words and ideas, however, doesn’t sit still long enough to rest quietly on a porch. This is why the Internet, blogs and other modern tools are on the rise and newspaper circulations are in decline.

Yet today’s speed and breadth of information alone is not why newspapers are dying. In fact, newspapers aren’t dying at all – quality journalism is. And as goes quality and focus, so goes the brand.

Bringing it Back to Brand
Why are some blogs popular? They are perceived as being authentic and having a focus — a clear point of view. They are more about listening and connecting than lecturing. Blogs aren’t afraid of any man or government, and embrace their audiences as equals with conversations that are relevant and accessible.

Now look at newspapers (forgive me, I’m generalizing here). They are perceived as being sanitized and too often unquestioning. They lack focus and relevance, especially on the local level. They speak from bureaus and offices – to people rather than with them. Newspaper management knocked down the wall between editorial and advertising, and replaced it with a wall between the paper and the reader.

Okay, so what makes a brand? Authenticity. Passion. Personality. Quality and trust. Meaning on a personal, emotional level.

Newspapers have failed not because of CraigsList, or the Internet, or bloggers, or citizen journalists, or content that is “unbundled.” Newspapers have failed because they have lost their brand identities. They have forgotten what made them household names in their communities in the first place. They have become “Hyper Global” in a world that needs more “Hyper Local” coverage. And that has led to many empty driveways and doorsteps.

Quality journalism can’t operate in this environment – and neither can newspapers. Newspapers have tried so hard to be “objective” and not ruffle any feathers (especially those of their corporate owners) that they have lost value and credibility in readers’ eyes. By trying to serve everyone they have served very few, and they are paying the price.

While formats need to and will continue to expand, newspaper content needs to contract. If newspapers can regain their focus, purpose and voice, they will regain readers. It’s that simple – and that scary.

Let the Los Angeles Times web site give me the up-to-the-minute news; let the print edition give me perspective and analysis. Let the web tell me about Baghdad; let the paper tell me about City Hall. And let both question authority and go back to being the people’s voice, and include us in the conversation.

I read the newspaper this morning. My fingers smell like newsprint. I hated the story on page 3.

I can’t wait until tomorrow.

3 thoughts on “Making Newspapers Matter: The Journey Back to Brand

  1. You hit the nail on the head. Well phrased and clearly put. I agree especially with your statement about brand identity. Hope somebody’s listening…
    The newspaper cannot be the internet nor should it try to be. When print media and online media figure out their places and settle into them I think we’ll feel less harried (and hurried) as consumers of news and as PR professionals.
    -Shawna Seth, Horn Group PR Intern

  2. Great piece, Gary. When I worked at a newspaper, I chafed at management’s decree that all content be “local.” But it makes perfect sense.
    Newspapers today need to do more analysis and in-depth reporting — in other words, they need to provide something you can’t get elsewhere.

  3. Thanks, John. Newspapers indeed need to provide things you can’t get elsewhere — the problem for newspapers is that, unlike when you and I were working in journalism, there are a lot more “elsewheres” available to the public.

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