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Fall conference: New England Newspaper & Press Association

Bill Densmore's notes from the fall meeting of the New England Newspaper & Press Association, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Natick, Mass.

Oreste D'Arconte, president of the Attleboro Sun Chronicle, and NENPA board chair, introduces. The theme of the conference: The economy. What can newspaper leaders do to cope, adjust and thrive? An assessment of where we stand comes from Amy Mitchell, the deputy director of the Pew Center Project for Excellence in Journalism.

SPEAKER: Amy Mitchell, Project for Excellence in Journalism <>

A brief overview of where news are in relation to other sectors in the media.

"The industry is in a worse position than most other sectors."

She shows a chart showing ad revenues in 2010 vs. 2009 -- Local TV up, oneline up, CAble TV up, network TV up, audio and magazines up, but the newspaper down 6.3 percent.

"Most newspapers are still making a profit -- the average is about 5 percent."

"What we are hearing this year is a really heightened sense of confusion, regret, grimness, a sense of loss, and confusion about where to head next -- what should our special and original content be? And some frustration as editors try to keep up with the latest twitter, latest application and still try to do more with less resources."

"We just have to start charging for content, period, there is no more waiting, no more watching."

The years of managing the decline is not over.

The determination that newspapers must come up with the answer doesn't mean they will succeed. She will talk about how PEJ is working to try and help be a facilitator.

The main challenge is the shift in power that is not full appreciated. The biggest issue ahead is not lack of audience or revenue, but that the digital realm in the "news industry is no longer in control of its own future."

Lots of reliance on advertising ad networks and content aggregators and search engines. And device makers control access to the public. Each device requires a new software program. "This is costly, often too costly and confusing for local news organizations." In can be too much multitasking. "So how can a news organization not be there." The industry is now struggling to keep up.

The most important challenge: The technology companies control the consumer data. "Not just the data about what they do on your website, but what else they do ... and they can sell that content to advertisers."

IN a user-controlled world, that audience data will be the key to the future, she says.

Another important challenge -- being able to see who your audience is and how to manage it.

Surveying local sources of news

Mitchell now turns to talking about the results of the latest Pew survey on where people get their news. Word of mouth (55%) is the second most mentioned source after television (74%), especially among 18-29-year-olds. After word of mouth comes radio (51%), local newspaper and/or website (50%), Internet (47%), and print newsletters (9%).

"So the social networking has really brought back one of the most traditional forms of communication we have had," she said.

Surveyors next asked where people go for news by topic. People go to TV for weather and breaking news. TV tied for the lead with newspapers on politics. Newspapers ranked first in 11 of the top 16 topics. "They are mostly the civic-oriented topics, but they are ones that fewer people follow on a regular basis."

The topics, in ranked order of their listed importance to respondents, were: Crime, local politics, community events, arts events, local taxes, schools, housing, government activities, local jobs, zoning and development and social services.

Use of the web

"Those that have the web and are comfortable with the web have already made the switch for most topics," said Mitchell. "So what opportunity does this suggest for newspapers?"

Two fold: Work on the misperception that it wouldn't matter if the newspaper went way. The other -- "The future will be on the web. Newspapers already have a much greater presence on the web than a lot of other outfits." Newspapers could be weather and traffic sources on the web. "That is an area that newspapers can now compete in digitally that they couldn't in their print product."

One other project embarked on

There is no easy way to share this information with others. If there were, how much more efficiently would the process of information work. They have developed a project to accelerate the process of searching for a new method to sustain news. To acquire and share what is working.

"This will be an envolving database of revenue-side experiments," said Mitchell. Everything will be anonymized. "This will be really hard data about how much revenue you have gotten from different kinds of experiments." Mark Jurkowitz is the lead researcher on the project.

So far, she says 10 companies with many papers are involved, including Scripps, the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group and Cox newspapers. They are now finalizing the first survey of data experiments. It will ask about paywalls, digital subscriptions and advertising revenue experiments.

The survey about to go into the field asks very specific questions and it should yield answers about what works and doesn't work in various size markets and types of markets and publications. "The initial site interviews have already given us a lot of insight and very specific material to work with."

A few concepts learned so far: Daily deal a bubble

"Companies are centralizing economic decision making in a way that they had not done for years and reducing local autonomy," she says, because the stakes are so high.

Daily deal -- already a bubble

"We also heard clearly that the daily deal business already looks like a bubble," she said. "They are not getting repeat customers . . . they are getting customers that want the deal . . . fewer predict a long and fruitful future, and a lot of executives are saying the trick is what is going to come next."

Changing corporate culture still hard

Also they are hearing clearly is that after more than a decade of transitioning to a digital way of communicating, a major obstacle continues to be changing the corporate culture. PEJ has talked for years about this culture being a part of the problem.

the journey remains long

"We are far closer to the beginning of this journey than to the end of it," she says they have learned. How far are we from a viable business model? Still a great deal of uncertainty remains. Nobody thinks there is a eureka moment around the corner.


Alan Mutter asks if PEJ has empiricle evidence about success of a paywall. Mitchell answers that it doesn't go above about 2 percent of the total audience people subscribing.

As for using paywalls: "I am very aware of that (lack of clear success) and I am not recommending that (papers use paywalls per se)." She says there are some successes -- at the Arizona paper. She says there are lots of ways to go about it. PEJ is not recommending anything pro or con -- including a paywall per se. But they are looking at certain kinds of charging to see if there is a definitive sense of what's working and what isn't.

"There is not going to be one main revenue source . . . there is going to need to be a lot of different revenue sources, a lot of which don't have to do with news," says Mitchell.

Question: What is prognosis for print product?=

A questioner asks how long does the print product stay viable and does it change in any radical way?

Mitchell says 90% of ad revenue still coming from online. Newspapers haven't been able to afford to give up their print product. A lot of advertisers still like the print ad. "That's starting to change on the local change, on the local side, some of the growth are local retailers that are now comfortable with the Internet -- with the coupons that can be scanned."

But she says a lot of newspapers are starting to change their print frequency cycle to two or three days a week rather than daily.

Q: What corporate culture changes are working?

Mitchell: Part of why it is hard is the culture of newspapers was not about doing change, but about doing things consistently, the same way. So newspaper managements didn't seize creative, disruptive ideas and run with them. "The creative juices about how to do this differently didn't exist within newsrooms," she said.

Q: Will a PR campaign for newspapers' news value work?

Will an effective communication effort about how much newspaper people get from newspapers really work?

"It can't hurt to try," responds Mitchell. "People don't have a favorite news source anymore . . . they are used to going to multiple sources." The public is more educated and smarter about news than we give them credit for.

Q: What about value of focus groups a la Steve Jobs?

With the death of Steve Jobs: He didn't believe in focus groups. And I'd like your take on the value of focus groups?

Mitchell: "I think I'm more in Jobs camps than others." PEJ tends to want to look broadly in a deep way. "It's hard to get to a real deep level of understanding with 10 people in a room."

They are now surveying 900 tablet users that are regular weekly news users and they will have that survey data out later in October. They are trying to see what they value. "You can't do that with a focus group."

She says focus groups do have value in some contexts.

Q: What about national survey results?

Question: What national-regional variations are there in survey results.

Mitchell: Differences are not as much regionally as they are suburban vs. rural, and those that had lived in a community longer. "Those that had lived in a community longer were really integrated, and followed most of those topics closely." Also rural people followed more closely, too.

SPEAKER: Ken Doctor