Thursday, June 4, 2009

New Column!

Short Takes - can local papers survive the economic downturn?

Mondays and Tuesdays are usually the busiest days of the week for the Greenpoint Gazette, and for many local weeklies in the neighborhood.
Reporters scurry around to finish late-breaking assignments and meet Tuesday deadlines before the paper is laid out Wednesday, while local businesses and property owners contact publishers to list advertisements and apartments for rent. Anxiety about the future of media certainly exists but we still have to get a paper out.
The economic downturn is expediting the fundamental shifts in the media industry that were well underway more than five years ago, as giant multimedia companies, particularly Tribune, began shedding newspaper jobs and shrinking the number of printed pages to save money. Today, even the New York Times is doing this.
The weekly barrage of stories about the death of print media reverberates in news offices like the hum of a broken air conditioner. Yet, one thing that I have been hearing repeatedly from community leaders and advertisers is that print media forms that may be in the best position to survive the current economic crisis include community newspapers like the Greenpoint Gazette, WGNews & Arts, Greenline, and L Magazine. It is one reason why Newscorp made a move to buy the Brooklyn Paper earlier this year and why they have been expanding into Brooklyn and Queens over the past three years.
This issue represents the two-year anniversary that Publisher Jeff Mann bought the Greenpoint Gazette. It is fair to say that over the past two years, Mann has been learning on the job, attending almost every meeting and event held in North Brooklyn, from YMCA annual awards dinners to legislative breakfasts, public school resource fairs and neighborhood Earth Day celebrations.
Mann and other publishers and editors in the neighborhood like him (Genia Gould, Jose Leon, and Scott Stedman) understand the importance of building relationships with local businesses, who understand the value of supporting local papers through advertisements. Though advertising dollars are fluctuating as more viewer traffic is drawn to the web, it is unlikely that this form of revenue generation will disappear completely. What local publishers are increasingly thinking about, beyond the halls of the city’s journalism schools, is how to create new models of revenue flow based on advertising on the web.
“We are in the process of gathering information on how to properly market and price for advertising,” said Mann.
This is the fundamental challenge of the Internet Age. The Gazette launched its website last summer, but has yet to enable commenting on the site’s homepage. The Brooklyn Paper has by far the best site in Brooklyn, though the web designs for the WGNews Arts and Gazette homepages have been complimented by several Brooklyn bloggers. Papers integrating a mix of multimedia platforms, such as videos, podcasts, and blogs, as well as breaking news, stand the best chance of drawing the highest amount of web traffic, or unique individual users, to their websites, though they do not always attract the most revenue.
Print prices for advertisements are still significantly higher than the web and bring in more dollars. At the Gazette, quarter page ads are $125 per week, half page ads start at $250, and full page ads are $500. Each ad represents a personal contact that Mann has made with a local businessmember or property owner. Personal contacts, made every day by local publishers help generate community support for their papers. It is easy for reporters to declare that content is king, but without a solid sales team or a committed publisher with extensive relationships in the community, you might as well just have a blog. Not that there’s anything wrong with them.
As Craigslist has eaten into newspapers’ classified sections and Google has poached many would-be advertisers, local publishers will soon be making decisions in order to continue their presence in the neighborhood. This may mean charging for free publications, asking web users to contribute micropayments, reducing production levels, and, relying more on freelancers. Local publishers should also think about relaunching websites to include features such as blogs with running commentary, calendars for important community events, more podcasts and webcasts, and links to blogs and other items of interest.
For decades, newspapers served as information marketplaces for the communities they served. Though the Internet is flattening previous revenue models and information is diffusing, if local papers can reposition themselves as informational town squares featuring a mix of local and regional advertisers on the web and in print, they should be able to succeed the recession. Then again, reporters could also try to sell some real estate.

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