Newspapers fail the value test.

No matter where you look, there’s debate over whether newspapers can be saved, whether they should be saved, how they can be saved, how the Internet should be stunted to protect newspapers. Everyone argues as if everyone has something to lose. Newspapers are getting evermore desperate as the “end” seemingly grows nigh, and in the process they’re finding ways to hasten their demise.

Take my local metro daily, for example. Faced with a dramatic drop in advertising revenue, the Syracuse Post-Standard has eliminated jobs, trimmed the number of pages printed per day, cut out large swaths of national and international news and redesigned to make the paper a faster read. The result? A less valuable printed publication.

The Post-Standard can now be flipped through in mere minutes — faster if you don’t look at the sports section. I do applaud the decision to cut out much of the national and international news. Though I know the paper has taken much criticism for it, anything that isn’t local news is just old. Unfortunately, they did that while also cutting local news staff positions, which means not only are you losing world news, but there are fewer local stories as well.

A quick point before I go on: The silliness about the newspaper debate is that we continue to act as if newspapers are the only true journalism. They are not. Newspapers are merely the publishing vehicle (an expensiver, bad-for-the-ennironment vehicle) for journalism, and can be replaced with something better, cheaper, faster. But I digress.

If the goal here is the survival of newspapers, the solution is to add value and revenue. My local paper has cut value in order increase the profit margin. Readers aren’t that stupid; if you give us a product that is less valuable today than it was yesterday, it becomes easier for us to stop paying for it. The solution? Play to your strength. Increase the local news content to valuable proportions. Don’t play to the Internet audience by running small print pieces that drive traffic to the larger pieces online; run shorter pieces online that drive the traffic to your print pieces.

Newspapers are not struggling because of the Internet. They’re struggling because they don’t know how to leverage the Internet. And they’re struggling because they are making poor choices to bolster revenue during a time when everyone is struggling.

Ad revenue is down across the board. That has very little to do with newspapers and a whole lot to do with the economy. Like most other media, newspapers have made bank by chasing national accounts. When those accounts dry up, the loss is tough to swallow. But certainly the same has been true over the past few years in television and radio. Even large websites that rely on national advertising to survive are feeling the pinch. Unfortunately, newspapers took that revenue decline and sounded the death knell, rather than tout value.

One of the first rules of sales is to concentrate on your deliverable. What do you do better than anyone else? In the case of advertising, what does your customer get for the money they spend? Newspapers consistently (and rightfully) have found it difficult to articulate the reasoning behind high advertising rates. The answer, I would have said a week ago, is value.

The value is in the quality of writing, the depth of the reporting, the adherence to strict rules of ethics. Right?

Unfortunately, the Washington Post has now done a bang-up job of cutting that argument off at the knees with its recent pay-for-play scandal.

In order to boost revenue, the paper sent out invitations to an exclusive “salon” at publisher Katharine Weymouth’s home, where for $25,000 to $250,000 lobbyists and association executives could get off-the-record access to Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and WaPo reporters and editors.

To me, this looks like an act of desperation. The paper is willing to sell its integrity, tarnish its reputation and defile the very essence of the beast — as long as they stay in business.

Again, they miss the value train.

If newspapers are to survive, they have to start by concentrating on what they do best. Even in difficult times like these, they need to resist the urge to run on skeleton crews and chop out large sections of content. They must put out better products than ever before to prove their worth. And, like every other American business, if they can survive through these tough economic times, they’ll emerge stronger when the economy rebounds.

It’s time to work hard, not get desperate.


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