Newspaper Next: Focus on ’Non-Consumers’

The report on Newspaper Next, a Harvard Business School-influenced blueprint for transforming newspapers into local ad hubs, has been released by the American Press Institute — or at least a stripped-down, free version of it (i.e., very little data). Included in the 91-page report is a playbook for evaluating and developing innovative services.

I previewed the $2 million project in July, and was very familiar with the analysis, since it didn't vary much from earlier projects I had worked on in 2002-2003 as part of Borrell Associates. The basic takeaway remains the same: While newspapers are declining from mass-market to boutique status, their parent companies remain capable of leveraging their strength in local markets to produce new products for reaching the growing ranks of non-consumers.

"Portfolio strategy is not just an option for newspaper companies — it is THE option — a necessity for survival," note the authors. "Newspaper companies can either become disruptor companies in themselves — or they can watch competitors do it — and see their local information franchise ebb away."

While the essence of the analysis remains the same, some findings have been adjusted, based on present-day realities. Deemphasized this time around is the need for separate Internet operations, and the potential for premium-priced targeted advertising and using database marketing techniques.

Now, the authors steer clear of mandating separate Internet operations (a battle that has been largely lost) and focus more on reaching small businesses that typically advertise in the Yellow Pages (finally!); the development of niche products such as tourist and parent publications; and the possibility of collaborating with other newspapers to form regional and national marketing services.

My feeling about the analysis is the same as always. It is a little pretentious and can be frustratingly vague. But the core lessons of Disruptive Innovations (formerly "technology") remain essential. Moreover, publishers respect the Harvard pedigree, and really listen. If the analysis can help turn around newspapers (or for that matter, Yellow Pages), it isn’t a bad thing.

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