There are almost 1,500 daily papers in the U.S., so the gathering of publishers at this year's Newspaper Association of America annual conference -- held Apr. 2-4 in Chicago -- looked a lot like America. An America of local monopolists, that is: overwhelmingly white, male, late-middle-aged, and predisposed to wear suits on Sunday, even when traveling. They gathered to hear, once again, that the whole problem is that they are no longer monopolists.
At every NAA convention, these men attend nightly parties in the host city's grandest public spaces. This year's opening event was at the magnificent Field Museum, on a large open floor bookended by two massive dinosaur skeletons. Many attendees joked about this. To the executive to whom I said such an obvious metaphor would never, ever, appear in this column: I lied.
IT IS MORNING. New York Times Co. (NYT )Chairman Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. scans a copy of his paper. P. Anthony Ridder, chairman of Knight Ridder Inc. (KRI ), whose company was just sold against his will, stands in the foyer, surrounded by men wearing grave and sympathetic expressions. At the podium, Jay R. Smith, Cox Newspapers' president and outgoing NAA chairman, gives a valedictory with the broad theme of "stop whining." It begins with and repeatedly uses the phrase, "It wasn't supposed to turn out like this." He also says: "The world changed a lot. Newspapers changed a little." But, come on, that's old news. Newspaper guys know they need to rip up the playbook. They've been talking about it for at least 10 years.
THIS IS THE PART OF THE COLUMN where we point out that newspapers are far from dead. That it's still fabulous owning a successful small paper in, say, Appleton, Wis., even if it's no longer fabulous owning a besieged big city daily in Philadelphia or Boston. This is where we point out that newspapers still throw off buckets of cash and churn out 20%-plus profit margins. Where we point out how hard it would be to dislodge most newspapers from their market positions. And that certain papers are making very smart moves online, be they The New York Times, which is using more video and blogs, or The Greensboro News & Record, which is embracing reader-written articles.
This is also where we recall that newspapers historically have been slow to change and to tap existing assets in new ways. Any newspaper sits on enormous market intelligence through its classified-ad databases, which represent rich road maps to a town's desires and buying habits. But few newspapers mine them for ad-targeting or database deals. Newspapers remain the kind of business in which executives say they're waiting to see the reaction to the Times' decision to drop its stock tables, which they all should have done God knows how long ago.
ALL OF THIS PARTLY EXPLAINS why Donald E. Graham, chairman and CEO of Washington Post Co. (WPO ), goes from boasting that 82% of the nation's capital uses some Post product daily to conceding, with admirable candor, that "the only honest answer is we don't know how our future will work out." All in the span of three minutes.
THIS YEAR THE NAA HIRED the Martin Agency (IPG ) to promote newspapers' power as ad vehicles. Onstage, Martin's chief strategy officer, Earl Cox, says running ads in places like AdAge.com and adweek.com is "the best way to intercept" key marketing executives: "They're online a lot." He then tries to act like it's good news that the second-best place to run a campaign trumpeting local newspapers' ad strength is in a local newspaper.
AT THE CONFERENCE, an Associated Press presentation and a speech by Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) hammered at problems posed by America's outsize oil consumption. After the AP event, I encountered a delightful newspaper executive -- ruddy-faced and white-haired -- in the elevator. No conservation measures for this guy! "I'm just gonna gas up my SUV and go out in a blaze of glory," he all but hooted as the doors shut.
In many ways, that is precisely the problem with newspapers.
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By Jon Fine