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Vol. 36 No. 2

Print? Online? Both?

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Attendees at October’s National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop were likely almost unanimous in finding the information shared by Chris Ferrell both sobering and enlightening.

Those who manage publications probably found some points of common interest in Ferrell’s detailed description of the publishing arena in Nashville, the site of this year’s workshop. And for those on the public relations side, Ferrell offered a snapshot of the current state of mainstream journalism and a preview of what they might expect from the reporters who turn to them for information.

The big question in publishing these days seems to be whether print is dead, or soon will be. If you can publish online much faster and cheaper, the thinking goes, then aren’t print publications dinosaurs—and expensive ones, at that?

Ferrell, CEO of SouthComm Inc., which owns a suite of print and online special-interest (or niche) publications mostly in Nashville and elsewhere in the South, doesn’t think so. Print is “an expensive way to deliver news,” he concedes, but he doesn’t see it going away entirely.

Why? The first reason he cited was an eminently practical one: For a number of reasons, advertisers still find that their messages have more impact in print than they do online. He quoted branding and marketing expert Jeffrey Buntin Jr., who said, “No one who buys advertising for a living wants to see print go away.”

For readers, he added, print is still the best medium for anything that takes a longer time to absorb, such as investigative reports, industry analysis, and creative pieces.

For publishers, print can be a powerful tool—and one that can be used to help attract readers to a related online publication so that the two reinforce each other. In fact, Ferrell said, for that reason, his company has been known to buck recent trends and start print versions of existing online publications in order to make the latter more visible.

But the fact that he sees some future for print doesn’t mean Ferrell believes the publishing world isn’t changing significantly—or that those who work within it or use it to get their message out can safely ignore those changes.

Shakeup in the newsroom

Chances are, you’ve heard what’s been happening to daily newspapers lately; Ferrell brought with him some hard statistics to help flesh out that rather grim picture.

One report that Ferrell cited was the “2011 State of the News Media” from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. In 2006, the study found, newspapers’ advertising revenues for both print and online editions totaled about $49 billion. By 2010, that figure had dropped to just shy of $26 billion.

One reason for that, Ferrell believes, is that newspapers had a lot of eggs in one basket: classified ads, which in 2006, accounted for 60 to 65 percent of newspapers’ total profit. That type of advertising has since moved online, he explained, and to sites not affiliated with newspapers—such as Craigslist. Newspapers have not found another profit center to take its place, he noted, adding that circulation is another problem; in general, newspaper readership is going down in number and up in age.

To survive, Ferrell believes, more newspapers will take drastic measures like the one introduced a couple of years ago in Detroit, where both The Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press eliminated home delivery except on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays. On the off days, the papers are available only online or in a condensed version at stores, newsstands, and street boxes. Ferrell sees this as a trend that will spread to other cities; the Sunday paper will be last to go, he believes, as it is the most popular among readers and advertisers alike.

The idea of advertising to the mass market is continuing to fall out of favor, Ferrell believes; he expects we’ll see more newspapers “unbundling.” That is, they’ll restructure themselves as media companies with different print and online products, each targeted to a different audience. That’s in line with how his company operates; SouthComm’s various publications focus specifically on arts and entertainment, news and sports, business, and other interests, rather than covering all of those in one publication.

In decades past, Ferrell said, large companies such as Gannett (which owns USA Today, among others) created huge conglomerates by buying local newspapers. In five to 10 years, he believes, those companies will no longer be in the newspaper business at all, having sold those papers to individuals or companies in their respective areas that want them as a means to reach local advertising audiences.

One trend that was already in full swing before the recession began, Ferrell noted, is massive layoffs among newsroom staff. From 2006 to 2009, the Pew report indicates, the total number of newsroom employees fell from 55,000 to 41,500.

How is this relevant to you?

Maybe you’re saying, “So what?”—or, if you’re a communicator, maybe you’re congratulating yourself for the career path that led you away from the newsroom. But the effects of all this change might be more far reaching than they seem, Ferrell said. His two terms in the Nashville Metropolitan Council gave him a close view of how the local media operate. “The TV news is great at covering house fires and press conferences,” he said, “and then they pick up the newspaper to find out what else they should cover.”

For that reason, he said, a problem with newspapers is a problem with all news; if your local newspaper plays a large role in showing the way for the other media outlets in your area, what happens if it’s greatly diminished or goes away entirely?

Also, those communicators who are on the front lines in terms of directing calls from the media have perhaps already noticed that it’s now less likely that a seasoned reporter is on the other end of the line—especially one who is focused solely or mostly on the courts and already up to speed. What happens if the newsroom layoffs indicated in the Pew report continue, or even intensify?

Just like many bar associations, many local newspapers are looking to online publishing as a possible way to solve some of the problems they face. Still a puzzle, Ferrell said, is deciding whether and how much to charge online readers. Some papers are experimenting with “pay walls” that block or limit free access; for example, The New York Times will give you a certain number of online articles for free but then asks you to pay if you want to exceed that number.

In general, Ferrell said, “People will not pay much for the online delivery of music and news.” For music, he added, people expect to pay 99 cents at iTunes or illegally download it for free, and they bridle at paying anything at all for news delivered online.

“How do we value intellectual property?” Ferrell asked. “By delivery platform.” That is, even if they’re going online more and more for news, most consumers still consider a print publication to be more solid and valuable—a sentiment that might ring true for some bar associations that have tried to eliminate a print publication and found that this did not sit well with members.

Whether it’s the online edition of the local paper or some other news outlet, Ferrell said, something happens to deadlines when the news moves online: They become constant and almost instantaneous. Forget the overnight deadlines for the local paper, he said; readers expect online news to be available minutes after the event being covered, and with frequent updates.

Besides speeding up the process of finding the right person for the reporter to talk to, bar communicators might notice a couple of other side effects from this time crunch. First, Ferrell said, online editions will run articles that never would have made it in print because of incomplete information. Second, he said, “The time for fact checking has been dramatically compressed.” Reporters now go with what they have, he added, and editors do their best to quickly check the information—and then additional details and corrections are handled via updates online.  

Another point that might give pause to those who have a hand in helping to manage the public’s perception of the bar president, the bar association, or the profession in general: “This digital world has a long, long tail,” Ferrell said. What he meant was that articles that are posted online remain archived indefinitely and can be read years later. His company recently received a call from a woman who was irate over an unfavorable mention of her in a gossip column—from 2001. It’s the second item that pops up when you Google her name, Ferrell noted. If the column had been available only in print, he added, the negative mention would have blown over within a few days or weeks.

What about tablets?

Similar to some discussions in the bar world lately, Ferrell wonders how tablets—such as the iPad—will change everything as they become more common. (He is less interested in another hot topic, smartphone apps; his company can’t recruit enough advertisers to justify the expense of creating those.)

Right now, he said, 8 percent of Americans own tablets, but that’s expected to reach 12 percent by the end of next year. Because it can be held in the reader’s hand, has a larger screen than that of a phone, and tries to replicate the action of flipping through pages rather than clicking, Ferrell said a tablet “feels like a magazine” and offers “a better environment for readers and advertisers” than either a smartphone or a regular computer.

It’s still early, he noted, but he believes newspapers and other news outlets and communication channels would do well to explore tablets, since they seem to be catching on and to be such a good fit for advertisers and readers alike. Over the next five years, he said, tablet use is expected to catch up with that of smartphones.

Right now, he said, iPads make up 98 percent of the market. If competitors come in that can reduce the cost and increase functionality, he predicted, then tablet use “will explode”—and then we’ll all see what changes come as a result.