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Digital Culture Shock in the Newspaper Business

March 15, 2012
By Ray Schultz

Here’s more proof, as if any were needed, that print newspapers are yesterday’s news. Total advertising revenue fell by 7.3% to $23.9 billion in 2011, according to a news reports citing data issued by the Newspaper Association of America.

The bulk of the decline was in print—it dropped by 9.2%. But even digital advertising showed only single-digit growth (6.8%) and that was weighed down by an almost-flat fourth quarter.

There are many possible excuses. That modest fourth-quarter growth for digital, for example, may be blamed on strong comparative performance during the same period in 2010. Yet that’s not the whole story.

“The numbers are consistent with a recent Project for Excellence in Journalism study that found slow culture change at newspapers and digital ad revenue growth coming nowhere close to replacing print declines,” Rick Edmonds wrote in an article on the Ponyter Institute site.

One problem in newspapers is “the difficulty of changing the behavior of people trained in the ways of a mature and monopolistic industry,” according to a report quoted by Edmonds, “The Search For a New Business Model,” in an earlier post.

Another is that digital “continues to provide only a small part of the revenue, while the part that is shrinking, print, provides most of the money — a paradox that is difficult to navigate and hard to resist,” the report continues.

Finally, newspapers lack people able to work in a multi-media environment. “Every time we try to mix these cultures, it is a toxic combination,” Earl Wilkinson, the director of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association, told Edmonds. “I’d like to see more digital people actually touching print.”

Maybe I was spoiled by working in a B2B environment where the sales and editorial teams were responsible for both channels. We jumped back and forth from minute to minute. That doesn’t mean we were great at it. The sheer workload (and the need to make money) often kept us from looking ahead.

Then there’s staffing. As one executive told Edmonds, “ We haven’t needed innovative people. So you get what you need. The kind of people that came into this industry were more operationally focused, executors instead of innovator risk takers.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But it’s true in many fields, not just the newspaper business. And those innovators are out there. You just have find them—and listen to what they say.

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