Thursday, October 25, 2012

It's time for the ad teams to launch their own mobile and tablet digital products at newspaper companies

I came up in the newspaper and magazines at a time when the ad people were calling the shots. Today I think it is the suits that are running the show, though the content folks like to flatter themselves into thinking they are.

During the eighties and nineties, the ad folks created the new sections, determined the folio sizes and launched new products. The idea was that nothing new could be created unless it could produce nice looking P&L. Today it is possible for a newspaper chain to launch dozens of tablet editions with absolutely no business model attached to it, with little space reserved for ad space, and no requirement that the reader pay a subscription.

OK, so be it. But that some of the best opportunities for digital media are being ignored because the power has shifted to the content guys.

It's only been four years since Apple opened up the iPhone to third party apps, and only two and a half years since the iPad launched, already open to developers. But I must admit something: I'm already getting bored.

Newspaper executives have always been a pretty unimaginative crowd, but things seem to have gotten worse. Most newspapers that have launched apps have taken a conservative approach, generally apps that mimic their websites, or else replica editions of the print newspapers. Where the apps are pretty good, like those from NewspaperDirect that are both replica and native, the apps are still taking a "me-too" approach.

And if finding profitable digital solutions is the Holy Grail of the industry, then why is it that practically no new mobile or tablet products have launched that are exclusively drive by the ad guys.

Look at the NYT: it has six iPhone apps and two iPad apps inside Apple's App Store. Only its real estate app could be considered ad driven app. But that is better than Gannett that has 87 different mobile apps, some for newspapers, others for its broadcast properties. Other than the ill conceived DealChicken, an attempt to capitalize on the daily deals fad, it has nothing that was clearly designed by the company's revenue side.

Part of the problem, of course, it that few newspaper companies have become developers themselves. In an industry where they would never consider outsourcing its printing or editorial, outsourcing its future is common. Because of this, few inside a newspaper office understand the potential of adverting tied to geolocation, paid news notifications, directories and buyers guides.

The solution is for the ad guys to launch their own products, outside the efforts of the editorial department. Where one side refuses to experiment, the other side needs to relentlessly push the envelope. With ad revenue declining across the board, driving new digital revenue not only will improve the paper's bottom line, it may well save their jobs.