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May 1, 2017

Nine Questions on Gannett Branding, Patch Widgeting, Stewart Becking, Bloomberg Viewing and Sunday Selling

As mid-April approaches and with it more year-over-year revenue declines, we’ll need something to take our minds off the depressing numbers. Out of the chaos, here’s nine questions on the state of the current art:

1. Won’t digital news subscriptions be short-term….and long-term? I’ve been baffled that the New York Times omitted a one-year (and easily expensable) option in its digital subscription offers, unlike the Wall Street Journal. Now comes this data point from German news publisher Axel Springer, the largest newspaper publisher in Europe. It has been selling digital subscription to non-print subscribers since November of 2009. It has offered multiple options — monthly, quarterly, annual and bi-annual (24 months)  — and the two most popular are monthly and two-year. That’s right, about a third of its digital subscribers in Hamburg and Berlin opt for 24 months. Now that’s a new customer relationship. After a slow start, digital subscriber growth is now moving more briskly up and is now in four figures, on the metered model.

2. Is Patch Inside a new strategy for the local network seeking lots more traffic? The Patch Widget makes it easy for any site to put a module of Patch headlines on its local site. Initiated in January, the offering is now available at each of the 800+ sites. That could be a great stealth strategy for AOL’s local play; it’s free marketing and distribution, if other local sites — think arts, sports, campus and local business sites — want to add some currency to their offerings. Though the widget is up, no Facebook connection is yet offered and the company says one won’t be coming soon. The local news module widget is hardly a new idea, but it’s one that few local newspaper companies have made work, despite the economy of its potential costs and benefits. Will Patch leapfrog newspaper sites with this old-is-new innovation?

3. Wasn’t Jon Stewart’s imitation-is-the-best-revenge departure tribute to Glenn Beck the best “analysis” of the quirky, quarky Beck? It was a deconstruction of the Beck act — bizarre, zooming camera angles, faux tonal intonations and the donning of the serious “now I’m telling you the truth” horn-rimmed glasses — that linked the Fox bloviator to the great tradition of American hucksters from P.T. Barnum to Elmer Gantry to the many false prophets of the age of of TV evangelism. Both Groucho and Chaplin would have been proud.

4. With “engagement” the new talking point of the 2011 news business, who will make the hire that makes the most sense, signing up Steve Buttry? Now that Jim Brady, TBD’s impresario, has landed thunderously in the new Journal Register lair, TBD (what I had optimistically called the start-up news website to most watch in 2010) retains only a few of its builders, as it fades into the history of “what-ifs” that has long dogged digital news innovation. Buttry gets engagement deep in his bones. The son of a preacherman, he’s been advocating community engagement, and more importantly, perfecting the practice of it over the last several years. No one better understands the art and science of community engagement, interaction and the mutually beneficial working relationships with local bloggers.

5. Doesn’t real estate bottom-feeding offer a good metaphor for what’s happening as private capital re-engineers the newspaper business? Who is speeding the recovery of real estate; well, bottom-feeding speculators, looking for downtrodden properties, spiffing them up a bit and selling them, as a recent NYT story on Florida reports. That’s not unlike what we’re seeing as private capital’s pushing companies from Freedom to Media News to Philadelphia Media Network to Journal Register to get on with the fundamental re-shaping of the business — and getting its ducks in a row to sell spiffed-up properties, come 2012 and 2013? (“The Newsonomics of Roll-Up“).

6. Will Bloomberg Views get lost in the echo chamber? It’s an intriguing, centrist, forget-ideology-let’s-on-with-real-problem solving idea. Editors David Shipley and Jamie Rubin, are shaping their new product with hires from the Atlantic and The Week, among others.  In an era when we hear so much advocacy and so little injection of fact-based innovation, Bloomberg Views could emerge through the noise, but I don’t think it will do it in the model of a newspaper Op-Ed section. Even if Bloombergian centrist, it needs to find its passion, though centrist passion starts out sounding like chaste sex. With increasing competition in the Seriousphere from the National Journal, the new Atlantic, the new AOL HuffPo, the new NewsweekBeast, among others, it will have to find its way in the social universe to help distinguish itself.

7. Am I the only one who doesn’t get Gannett’s branding campaign? Yes, the Gannett math — $33 million saved in furloughs, as much as $27 million potentially to be granted in exec bonuses — seems sadly clueless, but what about the money the company has spent on its branding campaign. New logo and then, in the TV ads, I’ve seen, ticking off the diverse Gannett  brands — from newspapers to broadcast stations to recruitment site Career Builder, rich media ad player PointRoll, elevator ad play Captivate, the MomsLikeMe network. Narrates CEO Craig Dubow, “What you may not know is that they are brought to you by one company.” I’ve seen the ad on local TV (which makes no sense), though it seems mainly targeted to media buyers through Advertising Age, Adweek, Brandweek, and Mediaweek. Why would ad buyers increase ad buying at any of the individual properties because of the corporate ties? Maybe, it’s also a reinforcement of the brand and the company for Wall Street, as financial analysts question future performance. Overall, though, it reminds me of Knight Ridder’s big investment in green-and-blue re-branding, not too long before its demise, money, then, as now, that could be better spent on innovation itself.

8. Is Sunday, Bloody, Sunday the new refrain of the daily newspaper industry in the U.S.? As the New York Times rolled out its pricing, I wrote about how the Sunday paper/daily digital (especially tablet) world seemed to be in early formation. In the weeks since, at both NAA (the Newspaper Association of America) and ASNE (America Society of News Editors) conferences, and in other talks, the notion seems to be gaining strength. In fact, I’ve heard that a number of papers, in their internal strategic discussions are newly focusing on Sunday. That’s the day that generates the most money — highlighted by preprints, now the subject of a new industry task force, as it hopes to hold on to them in the wake of digital competition — and may resonate with readers, as their busy weekdays increasingly go digital. Watch the Sunday circulation numbers over the next 18 months, and more direct (than the Times’) efforts to bundle Sunday print and daily digital.

9. Is it true that 24-month-old California Watch just produced the most-run investigative project in state history? On Shaky Ground” — pointing out poor earthquake readiness in the state schools — rolled out this weekend in all the state’s major papers, save the L.A. Times, in addition to the ethnic (Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean) press, public radio and TV — and Patch, among other outlets. More on the how and why this week, but worth immediately noting how such a start-up can have such a huge impact so quickly.

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