Newspapers fight negative perceptions in new ads

Associated Press Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Several newspaper executives launched a public relations campaign Monday to counter what they call “gloom-and-doom” reports of the industry’s demise.

Sure, they admit, times are tough. The economy is bad, the Internet has sucked away advertising dollars and people are losing jobs.

But the 100 million people who read a newspaper the day after the Super Bowl outnumbered the TV audience for the game, the group said in an advertisement that appeared Monday in more than 300 daily newspapers, including The New York Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

With the ads, commentary pieces and a Web site, the industry is painting itself as a vital source of information and the best place for advertisers to sell anything from grapes to a house — not the dinosaur often portrayed in the media.

“We are our own worst enemy. It’s like there’s a rule we have to beat ourselves up,” said Donna Barrett, a driving force behind the campaign, called the Newspaper Project. “We are still a dominant media, and we don’t give ourselves credit for that.”

Barrett, chief executive of Birmingham-based Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., came up with the idea for the blitz with Randy Siegel, publisher of Parade Publications; Brian P. Tierney, CEO of Philadelphia Media Holdings, which publishes The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News; and Jay Smith, the retired CEO of Cox Newspapers, which owns the Journal-Constitution and other papers.

“We are not trying to be Pollyannaish about the newspaper industry, but all the predictions of our demise are just dead wrong,” Siegel said.

Parade, the weekly magazine inserted into more than 470 Sunday newspapers nationwide, provided seed money in the “low five figures” for the campaign to purchase ads in trade magazines and online, Siegel said. Newspapers donated ad space to the group.

It’s not hard to understand why there has been hand-wringing about the newspaper industry: Each week seems to bring more stories of layoffs or other cutbacks. The United States has about 1,400 daily newspapers, but that’s down about 100 from a decade ago. Cities such as Seattle andDenver could each lose one of their two newspapers soon.

The Star Tribune of Minneapolis filed for bankruptcy last month. Tribune Co., owner of newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, did the same thing in December. Even healthier newspaper companies have been scrambling to deal with their debts, including The New York Times Co., which recently agreed to a $250 million loan from billionaire Carlos Slim at a hefty 14 percent interest rate.

Industry analyst Ken Doctor applauded the idea behind the PR campaign. But he said its very name — the “newspaper project” — betrays a fundamental problem that’s threatening the entire industry.

“By 2009, I would have hoped editors would have realized this is not about paper, it’s about news,” said Doctor, a former newspaper executive with Knight Ridder Inc. who is now an analyst with Outsell Inc. “The business model is just busted.”

Doctor said U.S. newspaper ad revenues have dropped 20 percent from an all-time high of $50 billion, and print editions of newspapers will never be a staple for younger readers who have grown up reading news on the Internet. Most newspapers make less than 10 percent of their total revenue off the Internet.

Barrett said the newspapers’ ad campaign was born out of the frustration of seeing a constant string of predictions that newspapers will go out of business before they figure out how retool operations and make a strong profit online.

Lost on the masses, she said, is the fact the that tens of millions of people read newspapers every day, online and in print.

“The crisis has to do with revenue, not with audience,” said Barrett, who also serves as a director of The Associated Press.

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