Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lessons for newspapers from Main Street

Over my years as a journalist, I've covered many events, both as a reporter and as an editor, that resonated within me, personally.

That was true again on Tuesday night as I covered a meeting at which the Downtown Neighborhood Association in Elgin, Ill., gathered with residents and business representatives to continue their look at ways of revitalizing the city's downtown, including battling the lingering perceptions some have about the area and how to combat them.

It occurs to me that what this group is trying to address has interesting parallels that newspaper industry leaders might pause to consider.
Elgin got its start as a rural river town but grew into an industrial center that, about the start of the 20th century, was focused a lot on the Elgin National Watch Company, the maker of the renowned Elgin watch. But as time continued, the watch company declined, people were let go. One of my earliest memories in terms of newspapers came from the early 1960s, when The Courier News covered the demolition of the factory where my grandmother had worked as a young woman.

Back then, Elgin was a city with a fairly vibrant downtown that had two single-screen movie theaters, several department stores, a five and dime, restaurants, a book store, some business supply shops, and a variety of other local businesses geared toward the city's blue-collar residents.

But along came shopping malls. As they were built in the region, Elgin's downtown fell into decline. Up popped big-box merchants, whose ability to buy and ship in bulk allowed them to undercut the prices of mom-and-pop businesses that once flourished in core business districts. Elgin's downtown merchants either closed shop or fled to the malls.

Without tenants, buildings languished. Downtown Elgin developed a seedy look that, particularly at night seemed to imbue the area with an aura of danger, which was accented heavily in the 1980s as street gangs became prevalent and marked their turn with graffiti and symbols.

Gang crime peaked in the mid- to late 1990s.

Elgin had an image problem, and much of that image was projected on the downtown.

The decline likely would have continued had not the city and some of the key stakeholders in the downtown area decided to do something about it. So in the late 1990s, Elgin became a Main Street community. Main Street is an organization with a nationwide track record of turning around core areas in decline.

Since then, much more has changed. The city established a tax increment financing district to provide a means to direct future revenue growth from the area's property taxes into badly needed infrastructure improvements, to fund loan and grant programs to help owners improve their buildings' facades.

The Elgin Police Department began innovative, neighborhood-based programs and focused enforcement efforts to combat the gang problem.

As a result, the face of Elgin's downtown has changed significantly. And yet, for many people, the past stigma remains. It is that stigma the downtown merchants and property owners are trying to overcome today.

So where are the parallels with the newspaper industry?

Today, the Fourth Estate's print sector is teetering on the brink of extinction after a period of decline that began after World War II, when readership began falling off. Yet the industry had profit margins that were the envy of any business. Soon, family operations were being taken over or sold to corporations whose sole interest was the double-digit profit margins many papers enjoyed.

That, I think, brought some negative consequences that began hurting newspapers even before the Internet arrived and websites like Craigslist began stripping away classified advertising revenues. Then came two steep recessions in the span of 10 years, knocking the already faltering industry to the mat.

Newspapers traditionally were a community hub: the source of community news of all kinds, from news to business to “society” news. The opinion page was a forum to argue issues and a place where you could go to read well-informed, preferably well-written editorials on issues of local relevance.

But I think newspapers have become less relevant, and declining readership bears that out.

The reasons are myriad, but perhaps the industry needs to take a few lessons from Main Street's four-point plan toward recovery.

Main Street has a four-point approach to revitalizing blighted downtown areas. The approach, I think, has strong parallels to the industry in which I've worked for so long. Some of the industry-specific points I raise below are my own observations, but many have been the subject of blog posts and articles by industry experts like Steve Buttry, among others who have been writing about some of these issues for some time.

Main Street Point 1: organization.

Putting industry leaders' heads together and collaborating, as painful and as noncompetitive as that may seem, to get everyone working in a coordinated manner toward common goals. Right now, that goal seems to be making a buck, but it appears that many in the industry are doing their own thing while others wait to see whose approach will work and whose will fail. It seems to me that an industry whose viability is questionable at best at this point ought to be pulling together to find a common solution.

Main Street Point 2: promotion.

Journalism has taken a lot of hits in terms of image over the years. And like Elgin's downtown (and many other American downtowns over the past 30 years or more), some of that is perception, some is lingering misconception.

In spite of many journalists' rather high opinions of themselves, public trust in the media is at an all-time low, according to the Knight Center for Journalism in America in an article late last year on a Gallup Poll on the issue.

Whether it is deserved or not, newspapers need to combat that perception, among others.

That could be a long-term fight but is one that should have begun years ago. Because of perceptions that the media is too liberal (48 percent in the poll) or too conservative (15 percent), the industry ought to begin a serious process of self-examination on this issue in particular. Once trust is lost, it is very difficult to regain.

In a related matter, anecdotally, I hear more and more complaints about newspapers in the Chicago region charging more for their papers even though the papers themselves have shrunk in size. I suspect similar complaints are being heard all over the nation.

Ultimately, readers are left feeling as if they are paying more for less, which is true. Feeling cheated also contributes to mistrust.

Another aspect of promotion is engaging the readers, and the Internet offers more options for doing so than newspapers have ever had before.

Allowing readers to post comments about what they've read is one aspect of that, as are other interactive types of features many news websites are using.

But newspapers also need to re-evaluate their use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as blogs. All can be used to help make newspapers community hub again, albeit online. Driving reader interest pushes up page views.

Social media can be used to blast a news alert or trumpet a new headline. But it allows more. Harvesting news tips from readers is one example. Engaging readers directly also could have a huge impact on a news website's vitality and vibrancy.

Main Street Point 3: design.

Newspapers in the past couple of decades have done a lot to make their products user-friendly. Why, then, does the opposite seem so frequently true of their websites?

The Internet is the media platform of today and into the future, yet it seems as if few newspapers put much thought into making their websites as user-friendly as possible. I have even heard the argument against making websites easy to navigate so readers stay on the site longer, presumably driving up ad revenue in the process. Personally, if I can't find what I'm looking for on a site in three or four clicks, I'm out of there anyway.

Along similar lines, ours is a nation of aging readers – the boomers. And while I am nowhere near retirement age, I share one concern many older readers have voiced about the print product in the past and, today, about the Internet: Legibility.

Call up a Web page on a browser and, generally, the type size is small – too small to read for older folks and those like myself who are experiencing vision difficulty. Yes, Control+ can boost the size of the type in the browser window, but the text wrap on many sites does not adjust accordingly, which means site navigation becomes problematic in yet another way.

Throw into the mix the blends of colors and you have a recipe for visual disaster – one colleague I worked with years ago called the ignorant use of hues a cacophony of color.

One site I recently visited features fluorescent green type on a white background, which for me is nearly impossible to read.

Sure, I can take advantage of the feature in my FireFox browser in which I select the type and background color, but that creates other problems as well. Web designers ought to be thinking in terms of readability, not just on sites' overall appearance.

Main Street Point 4: economic restructuring.

Newspapers need to develop a new business model, plain and simple, and despite what may or may not happen with these first three points, inaction on this final one likely will ensure extinction. For too long, newspapers either considered the Internet a novelty or, conversely, recognized a potential they did not know how to tap. Consequently, they tried to make the Information Superhighway work the same way their printed products worked. And they failed.

And many continue to fail.

It's been no secret that the New York Times has been developing a paywall that it intends to implement later this month. It's also no secret that paywalls largely have failed in the industry except for niche publications like the Wall Street Journal, which offers a specialty, an expertise that has few rivals.
Yet newspapers have never charged for content – many readers believe their paid subscriptions pay for the stories and photos, but that's not true: Subscription revenues traditionally have paid for ink, paper, the cost of the press run and, if the paper's been lucky, the cost of delivery as well.

And the Internet is the land of free content – that is what it was designed to be in the first place. It seems the only industry that has truly succeeded in getting users to pay for content is the porn industry.
Newspapers historically have relied on advertising to pay the costs of news gathering, and that model served the papers well. Businesses purchased ads with the hope that someone looking at this story on Page 3 or perhaps that story on Page 7 would notice their ad and come in and spend some money.

Many newspapers saw lucrative, double-digit profit margins under that business model. But the Internet has changed that significantly.

Advertisers no longer are gambling nearly as much. They can actually tell how many readers are looking at their ads and pay accordingly – at a fraction of the cost.

And so the industry must find new ways to pay the cost of gathering news.

The price is high.

If they cannot find a solution to the puzzle, newspapers' very existence could end, and that would have ramifications across the nation.