Friday, September 30, 2011

Far too many newspaper publishers need to be reminded that they still have advertising departments

I may sound like an old timer when I say this, but I remember a time when the ad departments not only got a say in the business decisions of newspapers, they actually ruled the roost. Today, at many newspaper companies, the ad departments are stuffed into the back room as if they are the crazy uncle you don't like to talk about. (That reminds me, I wonder how he's doing back there?)
The result of this kind of media management is that new mobile and tablet apps are being released by newspapers that delegate any revenue generation strategy to their app developers or the ad networks they choose to include in their apps. I know the first question I would have had when I was an ad manager, when told we were about to launch a new app, would be "great, what are the rates? what are the specs", followed quickly behind with the question "and why wasn't I told about this sooner?" Believe me, I would raised hell if told my team couldn't sell into the new product.

New England Newspapers Inc. have recently launched a series of new iPad apps for some of their newspaper titles, specifically The Manchester Journal, the Brattleboro Reformer, the Bennington Banner and the North Adams Transcript.

At first I thought the apps were the first apps developed by a newspaper publisher using on the many online app building services. Each of the apps comes with a simply app design that puts a series of boxes, some of them initially empty of content, onto the display. Quite a number of do-it-yourself software companies are offering these kinds of apps for little cost, assuming the publisher doesn't want a built-in newsstand or other features.

But these apps are from DoApp, a mobile app company I first profiled when TNM first launched in early 2010 (man, look at those first generation iPhones!). When they launched the first of their iPad editions for their clients I expressed my disappointment in the apps, so since these apps are exactly the same as the others there is no reason to repeat myself.

(New England Newspapers had previously launched replica editions apps for some of their titles, including the North Adams Transcript, that were built by Technavia.)

It is obvious that not every newspaper publisher is going to choose to get into app development themselves, and it is equally true that one can't stop the vendors from continuing to push their wares on vulnerable newspaper publishers, so let's leave that issue alone for now. Instead, let's return to the subject of advertising.

Left: the new North Adams Transcript iPad app opens to nine boxes, some of them empty, and a banner ad that comes in from the developer's network; Right: the dreary layout of the news section of The Manchester Journal app.

As amazing as it may sound, it appears that many newspaper companies need to be reminded that they are in the business to make money, and making money is not a crime. In fact, it actually leads to raises and hiring.

Because of this, the revenue generating departments of the paper really need to be major players when new products are launched. Tablet editions and mobile media may be platforms in search of business models, but I can tell you without fear of contradiction that any successful business models developed will include revenue generation.

When the conversation moves to revenue generation it too often centers around how a newspaper can make money off of its content. Paid content is king right now. Great, but where are the paid content strategies that are creating the new media millionaires in the newspaper industry? I'm all for paid content, in general, I'm just not sold on the idea that it is replacing the ad supported publishing model. From where I sit newspapers need to generate revenue every way they can right now, throwing away the ad side of the business doesn't make sense to me.

Because of this, the ad guys need to be sitting at the table when the conversation turns to mobile and tablet apps. The digital folks need to be comfortable communicating with the ad managers.

Further, those ad managers need to be in the same room as the vendors when they come in and pitch their wares. If they are they will no doubt ask some good questions like "so how much will we make from this?" That certainly will be a shock to those selling apps who fear one big question "who much will this cost?"

You see an app shouldn't cost a publisher anything. It should make the publisher money. Now I'm not stupid (don't go there), I know that right now no one can absolutely guarantee anyone that they are going to make money on their media apps, but there should be a path towards profitability, even if that path seems filled with hypotheticals.

Sometimes I feel like I'm the only left that still have the backs of the ad guys. So be it. I guess I like revenue and profits. Call me old fashioned. But seeing empty cubicles gets depressing. I would prefer the old fighting the old battles with personnel – you remember those, don't you – "I've got two new employees starting tomorrow, what do you mean we don't have desks and phones for them?"