What the Big Online Companies Do NOT want Local Publishers to Know

Big online media giants fear one thing most — that local publishers might one day wake up and realize that their trusted brand and relationships pose a major threat to their plans to dominate in local markets. Well that time is here and now. We’re now starting to observe a sea of change. If 2010 was the year of business waking up and accepting social media, 2011 looks like it might just be the year that local media gets on board and takes steps to resume their leadership role in the local community.

But it ain’t your father’s Buick my friend. The face of the newly remodeled local media company can’t look like the old one. The nation’s newspapers are still in a circulation freefall. The Audit Bureau of Circulation show the average weekday circulation for dailies have fallen over 8.7 percent year-to-year. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Quarterly Services Survey indicate a year-on-year decline in newspaper operating revenue between 12% and 22%. The legacy subscribe-ad business models of local publishers simply can’t sustain in the rapidly evolving world of socialnomics.

Some will argue that the local publisher has already moved to the internet, and it isn’t working for them. But their move was nothing short of patchwork. Was this a strategic move or a tactical one? Did the business model shift? It’s like when Kodak woke up one day in the late 1990’s and realized that the world was changing around them — the enemy was at the gates and their market share was rapidly eroding. They swiftly took action and in the early 2000’s added digital to their array of products. It failed miserably. Eventually Kodak realized that what needed to change was their business model — their fundamental way of doing business. They had to ‘reinvent’ themselves. The newspapers aren’t much different. Local media companies once thought all they had to do was put a digital facade on their business and voila!, they were web savvy. But their business models didn’t change. And the digital version of the business was treated at best as the bastard child– a ‘necessary evil.’ So they tried erecting paywalls thinking that they could coax people into buying their content. But like the Maginot Line, customers simply walked around, and not through. You see, bolting on short-term fixes without a strategy is not the answer. The newspapers must transform. They must ‘reinvent’ themselves in order to survive and thrive in an ever changing world of hyper-information.

So how should newspapers approach the problem? Quit focusing on content. It’s not about content, it’s about communication. Communication is the key to harnessing the explosive network effect of social media. Sure, great journalism is fantastic and it’s what they do best. We all love great journalism, but today, seemingly everyone is a journalist. Even premium content in this day and age is a commodity. With an ocean of information available at our fingertips, what attracts us is not necessarily premium content. If you haven’t noticed lately, people are very much interested in connecting and communicating with other people, online. And on the commerce side of the equation, people are looking to connect with merchants in a myriad of ways, to save money, or to simply find what they are looking for. But in the local community, people are right now looking for leadership– someone they can ‘trust’ who will give them the means to connect and communicate locally. The local newspaper is the obvious choice for this. The local newspaper has been a long-time friend of the community. They are the Switzerland of the community — the long-time trusted brand who has relationships throughout the land. Would you have more trust for a Facebook or Google brand who doesn’t give a hoot about the individual person, or someone you’ve known and trusted in your very own community for your entire lifetime?

Now let’s talk monetization. The newspapers are the connecting point for the local merchants and the community. This is where newspapers can absolutely dominate. The newspapers are in the advantageous position to give the local community, businesses and consumers alike, a platform from which they can connect and communicate, to create stronger, more meaningful relationships while driving awareness of relevant local products and services. And on the content side, newspapers can still do what they do best, by providing premium journalistic content. But this content will be intertwined with local homegrown journalism and commentary, as well as relevant local content pulled from external social media sources like Oodle, Fwix, Twitter, Yelp, etc. And, since people now live in various and multiple virtual places, the new local newspaper will have to jump on the bandwagon and syndicate their community homegrown content out to social media places like Facebook and Twitter.

In December 2010, the Amador Ledger Dispatch out of Jackson, CA launched the beta of their latest online property, MyACHome.com, running on a social marketing platform developed by TotalPaas, Inc. out of Palo Alto, CA. MyACHome is an example of a local newspaper reinvented. Rather than print feeding the online, they’ve flipped the equation and put their online model first. When someone wants something to go into print, it first has to go online. To make the online property interesting, local relevant content is constantly fed from a myriad of external social media feeds. And, to enhance the legacy newspaper, the Amador Ledger Dispatch pulls great homespun content (pics, commentary, blogs, etc.) from MyACHome.com and publishes it in its newspaper. The Amador Ledger Dispatch believes that the legacy worlds and online worlds work best when you cross publish and cross promote between traditional print and online. As for advertising, local merchants can help themselves to a self-serve online system to create and publish ads and deals. Ads flow both online and back into the print version of the newspaper. But for the latest-greatest local content and up-to-the-minute local deals, people go to MyACHome.com.

The local ad market is lucrative, estimated at over $100B. The threat from local publishers to impact or even derail the big online companies plans is very real. According to an article from The Business Insider, December 2010 “…the real threat to Groupon is coming laterally, from established players (newspapers, magazines, vertical sites, TV shows, etc.) who already have audiences in the millions, established brands and in-house sales staff.” And the last thing big online companies want to see is a vendor with a readily available social marketing platform that supports the local publishers in their quest to reinvent themselves.

The local newspaper still has the eyes and ears of the local community. The big question is — will the local publisher wake up and realize that they have an enormous advantage, before it’s too late. And the bigger question — will they take action?