NAA 2009: Paying Attention to Newspapers (Still)

Next week is the Newspaper Association of America’s Annual Convention in San Diego. I’ll cover Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s keynote on Tuesday, in which he’ll express his support of the newspaper industry despite Google’s very public axing in January of its Print Ads newspaper partnership (the talk is being streamed live at 10 a.m. PDT).

Newspapers, of course, aren’t in very good shape right now. Long term, their traditional model may not be sustainable. But if you are trying to reach the local audience, they deliver an effective yield, with local readership of maybe 25 percent to 30 percent. You can’t match it.

Yahoo is relying on its ambitious newspaper consortium to help in a number of ways. Among other things, its newspaper ties supports HotJobs, provides inventory for national advertising and sells behavioral targeting.

Zillow is another partner that is banking (somewhat) on its ties with newspapers.The Zestimates company expects a healthy bump from this week’s launch of a real estate search partnership with 180 newspapers, including The Tampa Tribune and 100 small weeklies owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. among its first rollouts.

In coming months, additional papers will launch, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Winston-Salem Journal. Besides search, Zillow is providing real estate advice features and mortgage information and calculators.

CFO Spencer Rascoff says he especially likes the strong newspaper brand. The Tampa Tribune has “close to 100 percent brand ID in its locality” he says — something that a new brand like Zillow wouldn’t have on its own.

Going into the annual conference, I’m not very interested in hearing about the various life-support efforts that newspapers have had to undertake (but there will be a lot of that). In my backyard, the L.A. Times has shown the way by ending the poly-bagging of the morning newspaper so that my sprinklers destroy the paper, wrapping each section with an overlapping ad that needs to be peeled off before I can read it, enclosing AARP membership materials since I am probably ready for it (not) and making me specifically ask for credit when I suspend the paper for vacation holds.

In my hometown of San Diego, I find it especially depressing that the local paper (which has just been sold to an equity firm at a fire sale price) is perhaps most identified with the homeless men selling it at red lights.

But I’m always very interested in hearing about what newspapers can do as a powerhouse local brand with daily frequency that delivers to a large percentage of the community in print, online and now on mobile. The footprint won’t be as large, the news coverage won’t be as extensive, and substitutes may develop equal effectiveness. But the opportunities beckon.

In fact, as we see at conference after conference, newspapers have more experiments going on in local community, information and commerce than any other sector in our interactive local media space. It isn’t entirely because of any special nostalgia that I keep an eye on this industry.

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