Tales from the trail: Reuters & U.S. newspapers

04 Mar 2015

PeterBohanPeter Bohan was a Reuters journalist for 30 years before becoming Executive Director of Reuters America Service, a product aimed at U.S. newspapers, web sites and broadcasters as an alternative to The Associated Press. Peter – Midwest Bureau Chief at the time – built the service starting in 2010 in tests with Tribune Company, which  became the anchor client for RAST in 2011. Peter spends more time than anyone working with U.S. newspapers to see how Reuters can address their needs.

We asked Peter to blog from time to time to share how it’s going:

Are newspapers doomed? That often seems to be the accepted wisdom these days. But as with most things we take for granted, perhaps it’s worth another look.

Certainly, a lot of the numbers for newspapers don’t paint a picture of health. In much of the past decade or longer, newspapers have lost advertisers and readers in droves to the Internet. Newspaper budgets get vaporized, staff are cut, and the downward spiral only seems to get worse.

We are left with a portrait of the walking dead.

But this corpse may have a pulse yet.

Some recent trends:

• The digital audience delivered by U.S. newspaper web sites in October 2014 reached 166 million unique adult visitors, a 17% increase from a year earlier.

• Circulation revenue for U.S. newspapers in 2013 recorded a second consecutive year of growth, rising 3.7% to $10.87 billion.

• Total revenue for the multiplatform U.S. newspaper business in 2013 was $37.59 billion, a slight decline from $38.60 billion in 2012.

• Revenue in 2013 from digital channels — advertising, circulation, digital marketing services, and other — rose 5.8% and accounted for 12% of total industry revenue.

• A category of “newly developing and other revenue” increased 5% in 2013. Digital agency and marketing services, where newspaper companies tap into interest among local businesses in the digital environment, rose 43%.

• Digital newspaper advertising in 2013 rose to $3.42 billion, or 19% of total newspaper advertising revenue, and pure-play (digital only) advertising rose 14%.

• Mobile newspaper advertising revenue in 2013, though less than one percent of total revenue, jumped 77%.

“More is going on at newspapers these days, big and small, than slow death by a thousand cuts.”

In my discussions with U.S. newspapers the last five years – from giants like the Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald to the smaller independents that make up the vast bulk of the 1,400 U.S. dailies – it is clear that a lot more is going on at newspapers these days, big and small, than slow death by a thousand cuts.

Newspapers are branching out into new sources of revenue, from digital marketing for their local businesses to hosting events, ticket sales, commercial printing, and specialist publications like guides and directories.

Newspapers are also pushing editorial collaborations with non-profits and other third-parties to deepen their reporting on local issues with fewer in-house resources.

And controlling costs remains a daily obsession.

So the quest for cost-efficient and effective alternatives is always front of mind for newspaper publishers and editors these days. So is innovation. So is partnership.

All that bodes well for Reuters America. We offer all those things. And from Bangor to Las Vegas, Manchester to Fort Smith, Cedar Rapids to Fargo, our clients are using their savings to deepen their local coverage. We’ll continue to give them content, tools and support to strengthen this primary goal.

“Small is beautiful.”

As we work with newspapers struggling for a new identity, we’ve also made a few discoveries.

  • For one, small is beautiful.

The smaller independent papers and chains we work with are agile, innovative and focused. They are trying new things, new business lines, new partnerships – true entrepreneurship.

  • Another thing: brand power.

Many smaller papers seem to have rediscovered their roots: their brand, locally, is unique, trusted, powerful. The question is how to exploit that as the center of community – not just as mirror and voice of the town or region but as the resource center, the out-reach center, the engagement center for civic action and debate.

  • A key concept: usefulness.

For someone looking to buy a car locally, find a job locally, find a doctor locally – is there really any valid reason why the local newspaper – digitally – should not be as good – or better – than cars.com, Angie’s list or Craig’s list? Newspapers gave up this usefulness – for now. But if the medium is the message – and the paper has the best local brand and out-reach – why shouldn’t they get it back digitally?

In short: the focus on smaller independent papers is, more than ever, on their local community.

“More collaboration, more engagement, more content” – that is how Newspaper Association of American president Caroline Little summed up her 2015 outlook in December.

“These are all examples of publishers understanding their readers and community, and offering more of what they like – whether that is more local news coverage, unique videos or expanded content. It’s about customizing offerings to each reader and finding new ways to offer more of what matters to the community.”

“So stay tuned: newspapers aren’t dead yet.”

Michael Wolff, a media critic for USA Today, wrote last August: “No newspaper or magazine has yet truly reinvented itself and unlocked the secret of future success. So perhaps it is best to keep all options open until a promising way appears.”

But smaller community newspapers are showing one way.

“Wherever there is a pervasive sense of community, a paper that serves the special informational needs of that community will remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents….Skimpy news coverage will almost certainly lead to skimpy readership. Our goal is to keep our papers loaded with content of interest to our readers and to be paid appropriately by those who find us useful, whether the product they view is in their hands or on the Internet.”

Thus spake Warren Buffett in March 2012, explaining why he had bought more than 50 mid-to-small newspapers, carefully selected for their community penetration and focus.

So stay tuned: newspapers aren’t dead yet. The phoenix may be rising — and Reuters is helping.