Rumors of our demise …

Newspapers aren't the media dinosaurs many were predicting in the digital age. The still have the franchise in terms of being local information providers, but that content figures to become more tailored to individual consumers as the industry evolves on the Web.

When the Rocky Mountain News went under in 2009, and other major dailies were clearly having difficulty during the height of the recession, the purveyors of doom suspected the combination of recession and new technology would lead to a wave of newspaper closings. The industry, which was admittedly slow to respond to the Internet, already had lost much of its classified advertising revenue to the likes of Craig’s List, and the economy was delivering cruel blows to its advertising revenue and circulation. While a cottage industry of death watchers was forming, there was even talk of the federal government bailing out newspapers, a trial balloon that quickly ruptured. Yet a year later, it’s apparent that rumors of print’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

For whatever reason, newspaper critics did not figure that ink-stained executives could respond with cost-reduction measures — just like any other businesses — dust themselves off, and position themselves for a new era of growth. As the national economy experiences an uneven rebound, only about 1% of national newspapers have actually folded in the past year. Among Wisconsin’s 225 newspapers — 30 dailies and 195 weeklies — there were no closings, just mergers, staff reductions, and even experiments with front-page advertising.

While papers are still trying to get back to pre-recession levels, circulation is beginning to stabilize. In Madison, the Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal, while still two separate entities, are sharing departments like sports, features, photography, and production. "Newspapers have taken the necessary steps to stay alive," said Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. "That’s basically what is playing itself out."

Monetizing the Web
Another aspect of business that is playing itself out is the evolution of the news industry’s dual platforms, traditional print and the Web. The Internet has given newspapers nearly the same immediacy as cable TV news, allowing them to break news in real time. While the strength of the industry remains the hard-copy product, more consumers are flocking to newspaper websites.

Newspaper Association of America research maintains that newspaper websites remain the most valued sites when it comes to local information and advertising, especially among upper-income households and the college educated. Yet while madison.com collectively has eight to nine million monthly page views (and one-half million unique visitors), translating that into healthy revenue streams remains elusive.

Industry wide, there is a good deal of experimentation with different online models — subscriptions, metered usage, and others — but the Web still represents an evolutionary phase. Both Madison publications charge for a new archival system with a searchable data base that literally takes readers back to the beginnings of the papers, but a charge for daily news is unlikely because it’s so commonly available.

As a result, neither has committed to a particular online model. John Smalley, editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, suspects the paper will offer a mixture of free and paid information, with the latter consisting of premium offerings such as columnists and other enterprise content. "We’ve been in discussions about pay walls and what would be behind the wall and in front of it," Smalley said, "but I don’t think there is anybody who has found the silver bullet yet."

The same is true for Paul Fanlund, editor of the Capital Times, which now is primarily on online publication that also prints two weekly tabloids — a magazine-style print edition on Wednesday and the entertainment and culture focused 77 Square on Thursday. As one of the first daily newspapers to go primarily online, the Capital Times has conditioned the market to expect 10 years of free content.

"I’m not sure what online newspaper model will eventually dominate," Fanlund acknowledged. "There are all sorts of ideas, and technology changes so fast that a lot of the conversation is now about different mobile devices. So we’re looking at all options while we continue to make internal modifications."

Through pilot testing, the Wisconsin State Journal is studying the best ways to leverage a variety of hand-held devices, both in terms of news gathering and content delivery to younger consumers that never got in the habit of reading the paper. Capturing the younger demographic has been difficult, even after ramping up video, searchable data bases, and interactive graphics, and delivering content via iPhones and social media like Twitter and Facebook.

In terms of using social media for coverage, "We’ve had our people do all sorts of experimental things," Fanlund said. "From our City Hall reporter blogging live all night from the Edgewater Hotel hearing, to live online Q&As, and to lots of innovation in sports and high school sports coverage. It’s part innovation, part experimentation."

With the help of search data, Bennett envisions newspapers tailoring online content to individual consumers who would basically dictate the content they want to receive on a daily basis. This behavioral targeting concept is further along in the advertising realm, but it also is considered part of the future of delivering news. "Our products will continue to evolve," Bennett said, "and they are going to evolve in a way that reflects what the readers want. Younger readers will dictate how we deliver content and what the content is going to be."

Andrew Johnson, president of the WNA and publisher of the Dodge County Pioneer, believes some young people will gravitate to newspapers as they mature, but noted they have never been a primary demographic target for daily or weekly newspapers. "Newspaper readers have always been older, they have never been younger," he noted. "Most of our readers are between the ages of 30 and 75."

Sign up for the free IB Update — your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices and the names you need to know. Click here.