Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A tale of two publishers

I have a Google News alert set up for "newspaper revenue," which seems to get me all the big news these days as well as interesting odds and ends. The latter included, the other day, a column entitled "World-Herald moves to embrace strong future" by Terry Kroeger, president and publisher of the Omaha, Nebraska World-Herald.

I bookmarked it, intending to comment. Then Jim Romenesko linked to it, pointing out that several passages in it are virtually identical to a previous column, "A word from the publisher: Your Star still shines, even in changing times," by Mark Zieman, president and publisher of the Kansas City Star. In fact, if you look at them side by side, there are many more identical passages than the two cited by Romenesko. In an update yesterday, Romenesko published an email from Kroeger indicating that he had read Zieman's column and obtained his permission to "use some of his ideas."

Let's leave aside the propriety of so much verbatim copying after getting permission to simply borrow some ideas, as well as the question of why the publisher of a major newspaper can't just express his thinking in his own words. Here's the core problem embodied in these columns, particularly in Kroeger's version: Neither of these publishers fully recognize the direction their businesses should be taking, but aren't.

Both talk consistently about "newspapers," not news enterprises. They talk about the market penetrations of their print editions, which are certainly very good. They both claim to be "solidly profitable," which unfortunately may be blinding them to the strategic imperatives they should be pursuing.

Zieman takes a swipe at his TV competitors by pointing out that the Star has "twice the audience of any local network television station," and that "network TV audience continues to dwindle, attracted by hundreds of additional cable channels." He adds, "'I love Lucy' was watched in 74 percent of American households in 1954; last year's top-rated show, 'American Idol,' was watched by only 15 percent."

True enough, Mr. Zieman, but how do you explain this: in 1954, U. S. newspapers garnered 32.94 percent of all advertising revenue, while broadcast television got 9.93 percent. Total advertising that year was 2.14 percent of GDP. By 2007, newspapers' share had "dwindled" to 15.07 percent of alll ad revenue, while broadcast and cable TV got a combined 25.34 percent. Total advertising in 2007 was 2.03% of GDP—in other words, the size of the pie stayed about the same, but TV gained most of what newspapers lost. And then there's this thing called the internet which has grown from nothing in 1996 to 3.77 percent in 2007. (Sources and graphs at my prior post on these trends.) The reason for this is simple: Broadcast TV, cable and internet today command a far greater share of consumers' time than newspapers do.

Both publishers go on to write (well, actually Zieman wrote, and Kroeger copied) :
Bloggers, talk-radio hosts and TV pundits all can entertain and inform. But only the local newspaper has the staff, experience and expertise to gather facts on a wide range of topics and present them in an objective and understandable format so that citizens can tackle the problems in our communities and region.
This seems to lump together and tar with the same brush "bloggers, talk-radio hosts and TV pundits," and seems to imply that the "objective and understandable format" is the printed newspaper, not the web site.

In fact, on the World-Herald's site, there are no blogs. There is no commenting, so you can't take issue with Kroeger's column. There's video, but it's AP video, not local video. There are photo galleries, but they're AP's, also. It's a circa 2003 web site, basically.

In contrast, and to their credit, the Star, a McClatchy property, has a slew of local blogs, commenting, local video, local galleries and much more of the right stuff. Perhaps Mr. Kroeger will take note, and do a little cutting and pasting of strategies in the future (that, after all, is a time-honored news business tradition). And both publishers should refocus their news enterprises more clearly to their leading edge, which is digital publishing.

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