Newspaper Publishers Whistle Past the Graveyard

December 21, 2009

Editor’s note: This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for To see the original, go to

I ran across an intriguing bit of media research recently. A consulting firm surveyed more than 500 newspaper publishers from papers of all sizes and asked them to predict revenue trends for 2010.

These executives collectively declared their long slide at an end. They predicted a flat year in 2010, with overall revenues declining just 0.2 percent.

Considering that the average newspaper company is on track to post a revenue loss of more than 25 percent in 2009, that’s a pretty optimistic prediction– in fact, I’d call it wildly optimistic.

It’s amazing to think that newspapers rang up record sales as recently as four years ago. Since then, total revenue at U.S. newspapers has plunged more than 40 percent– from a high of $49.4 billion in 2005 to around $28 billion in 2009, according to the insightful media blog Reflections of A Newsosaur.

That’s a breathtaking plummet, and it’s difficult to see why 2010 should be the year that the brakes are magically applied.

The troubles of newspapers have taken center stage simply because no other medium reports on its own problems the way newspapers do. But magazines, radio and broadcast TV– both network and local– face challenges of similar magnitude. Just last week, Citadel Broadcasting — which controls 18 percent of the Twin Cities radio audience — filed for bankruptcy. But you’re unlikely to hear about that on any Citadel-owned station, including morning drive behemoth KQRS.

According to a Gallup poll last year, the percentage of Americans who regularly read weekly newsmagazines is half of what it was 10 years ago. Daily viewing of network news programs shows a similar decline. An online poll of 14- to 24-year-olds found that 73 percent regularly listen to music on sources other than the radio. (What rock are the other 27 percent living under?)

What this means is that the traditional ways of getting out marketing messages, whether through paid advertising or public relations, are losing effectiveness. Yet the new paths are not as clearly charted as the old.

Look at the most popular stories on any website. They tend to be freakish, startling or salacious– that’s what grabs eyeballs online. Yet that’s not a basis for a business to reach potential customers.

Marketers and their clients need to understand that we’re at the beginning of a new era in communication, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

The most valuable currency in today’s marketplace is connection. Earning that currency requires engaging people on their own terms. It requires a spirit of openness, of playfulness, of friendliness. It requires giving, not taking.

That may be a tough lesson to learn, but a lot of smart companies and smart marketers are learning it quickly. Those who don’t risk having the bottom fall out as quickly as it did for those newspaper publishers.