Hitting the coffin nail on the head for newspapers

But time may be running out. Now, for the first time, pure-play Web companies have the biggest share of the local online-ad market. In 2007, Internet companies had a 43.7% share of the $8.5 billion local online-ad market, while newspaper companies had a 33.4% share, according to the media research firm Borrell Associates. Just three years ago, newspapers had 44.1% of the local online-ad market. (Directories such as the Yellow Pages have 10.1%, and local television outlets 9.3%.)

Local media companies, because they are based in the communities they serve, would seem to have an edge over Internet sellers when it comes to persuading the diner or corner hardware store to take out an ad. But they have largely failed to convert that advantage into sales. Instead of tailoring their sales to local businesses, many newspaper companies initially focused on selling ads to bigger advertisers who were already buying space in their print products.

That Wall Street Journal story hits the coffin nail on the head. Newspapers are losing their own core market because they didn’t understand the scale of the internet. They still thought mass when they should have realized that small is the new big. That is, online, newspapers still threw their lot in with the big advertisers who had been the only ones who could afford their mass products. They didn’t see the mass of potential spending in a new population of small, local advertisers who never could afford to advertise in newspapers but who now could afford to buy targeted, efficient, inexpensive ads online. There’s growth — yes, growth — there. But newspapers ignored that — apart from some half-hearted attempts to come up with crappy online Yellow Pages — and handed what should be their local market over to Google and other online companies that set up efficient means to sell a lot of little ads, which equals big revenue.

I saw this first hand in many companies. Print sales teams didn’t know how to sell online. Oh, they’re trying to catch up now, but it’s often too late, for advertisers are already using their competitors; newspapers lost the opportunity to usher small advertisers onto the internet. Even the online sales teams at newspaper companies didn’t how now to sell small; they were — as I once put it in a meeting — putting all their effort into saving the old $100,000 advertiser and saw getting 1,000 $100 advertisers as a distraction. The new-media divisions had already become big and old. They weren’t nimble. They lost out.

If it’s not too late, here’s my long-standing (now free) advice: A newspaper (or, for that matter, TV or radio) company needs to set up a new, hyperlocal company that is designed to go after those 1,000 $100 ads. Let the big, old newspaper and online divisions keep serving and saving those big advertisers. Start a new company that makes small, local advertising its sole focus. That means they need to set up automated systems to accept and place highly targeted local ads and directories. That means they need to come up with new means of selling without on-the-street sales staffs: outbound phone sales, direct response, even local sales network (instead of citizen journalists, citizen sales people), making aggressive use of the promotional power of the newspaper while you still have it. That means they need to have lots of targeted local content without large editorial staffs. That means they need to set up networks with local bloggers and others and they need to encourage more people to join and the way they will do that is by sharing revenue and so these need to be both content and ad networks. This is unproven but I know that this won’t happen in the existing structure from print or even online staffs. It’s hard and its new but — as the Journal now well proves — if you newspapers don’t do it, your online competitors will.

Rather than creating new networks that serve new advertisers in new ways, though, the newspapers are trying to outsource this by joining big networks with the likes of Yahoo and Monster – which are just big, old media companies without the presses. As the Journal says, that’s no silver bullet:

Increasingly, newspapers are deciding to form deeper alliances with their main competition. More than a year ago, Yahoo struck a deal with about a half-dozen newspapers to create a national online-ad sales network. Since then, additional newspapers have signed up. In the coming year, papers in the alliance will start using Yahoo technology on their sites so that they can sell more-sophisticated ad offerings, such as behaviorally targeted ads. Separately, a group of 11 newspaper companies representing nearly 300 newspapers recently formed a partnership with real-estate site Zillow.com to tap into more real-estate classified ads.

Analysts say these kinds of steps will help but that none is a silver bullet. “Ultimately, it is going to take a lot of singles to really have a significant impact on the overall operations of the company,” says John Janedis, a publishing-industry analyst at Wachovia Securities.

The internet is an entirely new economy. It’s not built on big. It’s built on a mass of smalls. And newspapers think big. That’s their real challenge.