29 April 2009

Keeping Old Friends

Although many older readers are now getting their news online, a great many are not -- and have yet to be convinced that it's a viable option. Yet as print editions become thinner or even fold altogether, such readers will lose out if they do not make the transition. And publishers will lose them altogether.

In this month's Stop the Presses column, long-time online journalist Steve Outing offers advice on how to convince -- and then train -- remaining print readers to make the transition to online and mobile news services.

`I believe they’ll be more forgiving if you can convince them that the money they continue to pay the “newspaper company” gets them a lot more than just the thinning paper edition,' he says. As cutbacks continue, he adds, `publishers will want a contingency plan so that their remaining older customers don’t bail out in disgust.'

Among his suggestions:

* Offer a 'digital-replica' e-edition that mirrors the print edition but with the added advantages of search, archive access and environmental friendliness -- and then, at least some days, forego actually printing the 'print' edition. Although Outing previously has criticised such e-editions, which are not big revenue generators, he says the current industry crisis makes them a sensible option for both publishers and consumers who will find the familiar format comforting.

* Use the print edition far more frequently to promote and provide URLs for extra material available online, such as expanded visuals, multimedia content or interactive options. `As print editions get thinner, it’s essential to hold on to paying print subscribers by offering them more than they hold in their hands and guiding them to accessing it in a simple way,' he says. `Repeated often enough and routinely, even print loyalists will start to get the idea: “Go online once in a while, because we’ve got much more for you!”'

* Educate older readers. For instance, run regular short features in print on how to use the internet or mobile devices for news, how to interact with journalists and other readers, and the like. Public seminars on such topics are another option, one that will bring community members together and potentially stimulate new ideas.

* Publish excerpts from, and URLs for, content from other online sources, `curating' the best that’s available and pointing print readers to it. Such a service enhances the value of the print edition, teaches the internet skeptics the value of the online world, and perhaps will keep people paying for the print edition a while longer.

Outing concludes that paying attention to current print readers is crucial `as newspapers go through a crisis that will kill more of them, and transform the survivors into companies that are digital-centric and have lesser print products.'

The newspaper industry does not have to simply leave print readers to drift during the transition, he adds. `Publishers need to take an active role in educating the people who for now continue to provide much of the revenue that newspapers live on and give businesses a reason to continue spending money on print-edition advertising.

`Only by guiding the print loyalists to complementary online and mobile services offered by the publisher can newspaper print editions survive for a longer time. To expect them to continue to pay for a product that continues to shrink in size, influence and quality is folly. Offer them more, or watch them slip away.'

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