'No Time to Argue; Throw Me the Idol'

Just got in to Newspapers'05 in Dallas, the newspaper industry's mega-show put on by the Newspaper Association of America (NAA). This show covers absolutely everything having to do with the industry — except it appears blogs, social networking and RSS.

I'm on a panel Sunday morning (of all times) on online newspapers as local shopping destinations. Like print Yellow Pages, advertising in U.S. newspaper print editions is a multi, multi-billion-dollar medium, with classifieds in the $16 billion range. And like Yellow Pages it is potentially threatened (over time) by consumer usage defections to the Internet.

Online newspapers are growing traffic and revenues and have a shot at attracting some of the younger readers who aren't really ever going to subscribe to a traditional newspaper. (Newspapers were the €œfirst choice€ media of only 3.2% of 18 to 34 year olds vs. Internet at 45.6%, according to the Online Publishers Association [9/04].)

Yet, despite some exceptions, online newspapers are mostly cluttered sites that do a mediocre job of displaying the wealth of local content that they possess. They typically also don't showcase their advertisers very well or offer a very satisfying user experience.

The San Francisco Chronicle's website is a case in point. There's lots of great non-news local content, but it's largely buried. To the paper's credit, however, it's starting to offer RSS feeds to news readers, My Yahoo! and Firefox.

On the other side is the Atlanta Journal Constitution's new shopping site. It looks more like AOL's inStore site or Yahoo! Shopping than a typical newspaper site.

Any momentum that newspapers are starting to build online is challenged by the "commoditization" of news (Yahoo! News is the No. 1 news site), also the emergence of local search and a growing number of other sites that offer local information and classified listings. Craigslist and eBay are the most obvious and prominent examples.

The industry is at something of a crossroads it seems, not unlike print Yellow Pages. Faced with modest growth — and declining print subscriber rolls — newspapers must quickly embrace online as their growth engine. But online is much faster moving and more competitive. In addition, there are legacy and culture issues, including the historical newspaper tension between editorial and advertising. So it's not going to be easy.

Nonethless, both print YP and newspapers need to develop much improved online products sooner rather than later. Time is of the essence.

In the words of actor Alfred Molina in the original Indiana Jones movie, "No time to argue; throw me the idol."

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