That Time I Predicted the Future For Newspapers…
Below is a memo I wrote in April 2005 to Washington City Paper management. The Internet was beginning to impact the company and, as the paper’s Webmeister, I had some thoughts about that.
My key insight was to recognize that the company that published an old-fashioned newspaper was in fact an information-rich, advertising-based media company. That the defining idea of the business must be reconsidered in order to offer information to people whenever and however they wanted to receive it. Unfortunately, almost the only part of that idea to gain traction was that the publisher started referring to the paper as a “media company.”
Of course, I was talking “brand” and “marketing” and “digital-first” to an organization with an open disdain for such concepts. A short digression:
When City Paper launched its site in 1996 and I was made content manager, I created a house ad to promote this momentous event. The ad consisted of a single quote against a white background. In industry terms, it was called a “tombstone ad.” Oh, the irony. The ad said this:
I was confident that CP’s discerning readership would recognize the line from Ghostbusters, spoken by the Harold Ramis character, and, again, get the irony. Almost instantly after I faxed the proof to one of the owners for approval my phone rang and the big boss was shouting at me, “I NEVER WANT TO SEE THAT AD AGAIN! DESTROY IT!” And on and on and on and on. The ad never ran.
Back to my prescient memo. Some of what I wrote reflects a still-print-centric mindset. I underestimated Pitchfork. Some of the ideas were kinda crazy. (Creating a “radio station” using then-new Live365.com?) And I was clearly wrong about not posting editorial online. In my defense I was trying to defend our paid archives, as well as suggesting that the website and the paper were separate entities and should each offer what each did best. But I was certainly correct that the site needed more blogs. Which did not happen for several years.
But most of what I wrote holds up rather well:
Washington City Paper: The real-time interactive solutions company!
CP is two companies. Historically, a print publication and, increasingly, an online enterprise.
As has been said, we used to be the Internet before there was an Internet. People came to City Paper to find out WHAT was going on. Now, they can get that information from primary sources.
But they still come—they come to our message board. They come to Matches. They come to Crafty Bastards. They come to Nosh Mobs, and they come to the paper (online and off) to find out WHY something is happening. To find out WHAT it means.
Because our critics still provide the context. Our writers still do the legwork, we offer authority to reader’s lives. That’s what they can’t get elsewhere. We offer more value than undistilled Internet info.
That’s why the paper will survive, and that is what we can leverage online.
But the paper only does it once a week. The reason Craigslist is succeeding is that they’re real-time.
But we still have a powerful and attractive name—which is our brand. And that’s the key: We are more than a paper, we are a source for definitive information, the first and last word on city life and culture. So decisions based on a once-weekly delivery must be expanded to consider the real-time needs of readers—even people who don’t read the paper but do want the hip cred that our brand lends them.
Because readers can wait a week to find out about PUDs, or that a guy is sitting on a bucket while a condo is built around him, or whose drains are backing up. [THEN-RECENT CP STORIES] Because these are CP enterprise stories that will SURPRISE readers, in our time-honored fashion. People enjoy those stories, but they’re not online looking for them.
Because readers no longer want or need to wait to learn how the show was, who’s coming to the show, where the show is, and how much it will cost. They already know that Band X has an album coming out. They want to know if it’s any good. That’s where our critics can give them context.
And, because we still get the CDs, movie, and theater tickets first, we are still the place to come for advance word on what’s what.
So, our RADIO STATION can turn people on to new bands, sounds, trends, fads.
Also, City Paper branded (or co-branded with a partner) CDs can present the best local bands, or even national indie material. And our RADIO STATION can let them hear it.
It’s a real-time news cycle now. Just because the paper only appears once a week doesn’t mean that the City Paper brand can’t have a real- (or nearly real) time component. Classifieds will soon be just that, Matches, too.
Nearly every day, people gather at our message board, inDCent eXposure, and organize a happy hour. Many of these posters have become friends through the board. They could just as easily IM or telephone or e-mail each other, but the congregate at our house. Because they know it’s the cool place where all their friends and other cool kids will be. And also because it’s a bit easier — post once, all the cool kids read the notice, plans get set. We can create similar “cool hangs” around other parts of the brand.
As Dave Walker said—oh, that’s David M. Walker, Comptroller General of the United States, discussing the agency’s new “Transformation Challenges”—that the GAO must change focus from “hierarchical, process-oriented, and inward-looking” to one based on “partnering, results, and outward-looking.”
CP’s hierarchy works, but we must change our aversion to promotion and partnering.
A print-centric outlook suggests that the online enemy must be fought and contained.
The new view suggests that one can feed the other. Or, that online can feed itself.
To do that, our site needs consistent and sustained attention from sales. So many of our pages have no ads on them. The second most trafficked area, our message board, carries no adverting. We never attempt to leverage this crowd into dollars.
REDESIGN OF THE MAIN PAGE:
Our main page should feature the following:
EAT MEET SEE DO LISTEN MAKE BUY SELL WORK READ WIN
EAT = Restaurant Finder
MEET = Matches
SEE = Movies/Showtimes
DO = Listings
LISTEN = Music listings
MAKE = Crafty Bastards
BUY / SELL = Classifieds
WORK = Help Wanted
READ = Editorial/Back issue
WIN = Contests
Because that’s what we do. All those things are what people come to our Web site for. They come to the paper for the same thing, but differently. So the site must be a different experience than the paper.
With this minimalist presentation, we send you right away to our information, because that’s why you came to us. They don’t want a cool site, they want a useful site—they really don’t want any site at all, they just want the information. Which we can give them, as quickly and easily as possible—with a logo at every turn, reinforcing the brand, hopefully selling as well.
For instance, the online version of the City Lights page is counterproductive. We now should know that it makes no sense reproducing a print page. It works fine on paper. The eyes can take in the entire page, the entire week. Bold type attracts the eye, making a search easy. Online, you have to scroll and scroll down, very linear, one thing after another. What navigation we have is not all that clear, useful or used.
But people looking for something know what they’re looking for. They’ve been trained to search in certain ways, which the online City Lights page does not provide.
RATHER: Our picks should be subsumed into the listings database, with a button added to the main search page for people who want to see what we think the best bets are. Click the button and get all the picks. If they’d rather search for things to do on Monday or things at the Black Cat, or a type of music or theater, and a picked item comes up, it will be flagged with a Best Bet marker. So people can still get our editorial direction in two ways, but we must acknowledge that Control-F, the ability to search, has shifted the power.
But the power we still hold is that we are still the repository of information. And that is something we can still leverage, in that our listings can still be considered authoritative and definitive. But only if the interface supports readers assumptions and expectations about searching online.
No editorial should be regularly replicated online. Only on special occasions, if we want a more or less permanent link for promotional purposes—a writer is on the radio discussing the story, or a story is an exclusive or Romenesko bait.
Because the Web site needs to speak to another audience than just the paper. The site needs to translate what City Paper does and offers into the language that the plugged-in people understand and, just as importantly, expect.
So, in addition to City Paper radio, and the upcoming Matches blog, we can offer a food blog, an arts blog, a crafts blog…
Landmark Theaters has a free CD in the lobby, “Landmark Music.” I took one, listened, then bought two CDs as a result. We should be able to do the same—find a partner to defray costs (which are not that expensive: 100 black type on disc $265-$274; Or, buy a CD printer: $150-$300. CD duplicator: $300-$1,300.) The City Paper CDs can present the best local bands (no royalties).
Eventually, the site was redesigned partially along the lines I suggested. But the idea that the Web was a threat and that print was king held strong.
In Feb. 2006, I further clarified my thinking about information strategies when City Paper was approached with a partnership opportunity. A group of local entrepreneurs were creating a network of large-screen TVs to be placed in their many bars and restaurants. The group controlled some of the most successful and hip clubs in town; they were a good fit with City Paper. The concept was:
“a web based video entertainment network that features content and advertising that is visually stimulating & thought provoking.”
The screens would endlessly repeat a three-hour loop of eye-catching video interspersed with commercials. Beer commercials, car commercials, big glossy, expensive TV commercials.
The group simply wanted City Paper to advertise.
I instantly recognized the potential and switched the proposal around. City Paper would not advertise. City Paper would become a partner, offering its entertainment and other listing information as content in exchange for ad revenue-sharing. Further, the project would be branded as City Paper TV, or CPTV.
The businessmen agreed. (The original title they had was so completely terrible that I think they were relieved to have a better name.)
What I saw in this deal was the opportunity to rescue dead newspaper content and get it out in the public, in front of our readers where they were, every day of the week. Plus, all those pricey TV ads for liquor and cars that never made it into CP’s pages were now in our grasp.
This is how I broke it down to CP management:
WHAT THEY WANT: Money from us.
WHAT WE WANT: A branded venue for our content, with revenue potential through ad sales and/or revenue sharing.
WHAT WE OFFER: A jumpstart to their business.
City Paper offers 25 years of reader goodwill and brand loyalty.
With a City Paper brand on the screens, model is instantly credible. We can immediately supply top-quality content, in quantity.
We can immediately bring our advertisers to their screens.
FOR US: Ads are an upsell offer—paper, web, screen.
FOR THEM: Our clients become their clients, with no sales effort from them.
HOW IT CAN WORK:
They keep 100% equity of their business model and shares revenue generated by City Paper ad reps.
City Paper gets 100% onscreen branding opportunity and shares revenue from ad sales.
The business group was investing $1 million in technology. City Paper was investing nothing other than content we already had and the time of a salesperson, who would be upselling — print, online, TV.
I further defined the importance of embracing the idea that the company that owns the newspaper is much more than just a newspaper publisher:
We think of our information in terms of pages. Big blocks of static information in one physical package. And our pages do look nice. But all people aren’t always looking for all the info. And they don’t care how it looks. They usually want one thing, maybe two. We need to separate the info from the pulp—send it to people where they are, when they want it.
Further, I noted that
Our main processes are already in place—the advertising-collection system, the information-compiling system.
Indeed, supplying CPTV screens with content would be about as simple as sending the pages to the printer each week.
The New York-based, Harvard-educated CFO drew up a Projected Income Statement that saw first-year revenues at $1.5 million. City Paper would get half of the profits on that figure, estimated at $250,000. One of CP’s key salespeople was keen to devote herself to the task.
At the last meeting on the topic, the publisher stated that the quarter-million dollars coming in from CPTV really represented a quarter-million that wouldn’t go into the paper, because the salesperson would be distracted by the new venture. He saw it as a wash.
And sure enough soon lots of money was not going into the paper. And there wasn’t another revenue stream to replace it. City Paper the “media company” did not move into new media.
But I knew that CPTV was only a first step. I looked beyond, to other opportunities for our content to live. I wrote to management:
For instance, Restaurant Finder ads could be on movie screens. Restaurant Finder’s GPS-based functionality could be on people’s cell phones and PDAs.
I also envisioned replacing City Paper street boxes with City Paper wired kiosks, with touch-screens that let users search listings, restaurants, classifieds, or print out an article — for a fee. A customized, branded iPad, if you will.
But they wouldn’t. My vision in 2005 and 2006 was not widely shared. A year later, the old owners sold City Paper. A year after that, the new owners drove the company into bankruptcy.
Without the participation of City Paper and its brand and content, the TV screen network idea never really caught on. Meaning I didn’t even get a T-shirt out of the deal.