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Newspaper Conference Bemoans Changing Consumption Patterns

'Our Customers These Days Are a Slippery Bunch'

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- This week's Newspaper Association of America's annual conference kicked off with its outgoing chairman detailing a candid look at the industry's current woes.

'If we are not connecting with our readers, what use are we to our advertisers?' asked NAA chairman Gregg K. Jones.

"Our customers these days are a slippery bunch," said Gregg K. Jones, the NAA's chairman and also co-publisher of the Greeneville Sun in Tennessee. "Harder to find and harder to hold onto."

'Do they still love us?'
"Do they still love us? Do they still need us?" he wondered. "Consumer today aren't following patterns in media, or anything else." He described American consumers as having gone "from the 'we' generation to the 'me' generation to the 'it's all about me' generation."

"If we are not connecting with our readers, what use are we to our advertisers?" Mr. Jones asked. "We must make sure our products reflect the life experiences of those we are trying to attract."

Mr. Jones' address was not all darkness and gloom. He said that many publishers he had met "had a fabulous March." (This is not true for some of the biggest newspaper companies, though.) But he also kept circling back to newspapers' persistent strength with baby boomers -- which may not be the best way to reassure marketers that express concerns over the graying of the newspaper audience.

'New thinking'
Mr. Jones cited the potential of free daily newspapers as an example of welcome "new thinking" in a tradition-bound industry, and gave nods of approval to those who invested "millions of dollars in local Web sites."

In the presentation following Mr. Jones', the NAA's president-CEO, John Sturm, suggested the outlines of an upcoming promotional campaign for newspapers, carrying the theme of "engaged readers" (a bullet point that magazine publishers have similarly started to stress). He showed attendees excerpts from a promotional film, produced by Washington-based ThinkFilm, which feature ostensibly ordinary citizens pontificating, news-anchor style, on sundry news-related issues of the day, and thus underscoring the centrality of newspapers to consumers lives.

Messrs. Jones' and Sturm's remarks come as the American newspaper industry shows increasing evidence of bifurcation, one where papers serving small and midsize markets, like those owned by the nation's largest newspaper company, Gannett, are doing well. But those serving larger metro markets, owned by other industry heavyweights such as the Tribune Co., Knight Ridder and The New York Times Co., still struggle. Although the economy has bounced back from its early-decade recession, analysts have noted the newspaper industry has not yet broadly shown evidence of bouncing back the way it did after the last recession, in the early '90s.

Tougher media environment
In private conversations at the convention, executives attributed the lack of bounce-back to a tougher and more complex media environment, particularly in the largest markets. Those markets contain a higher percentage of heavily wired consumers who are used to getting free information on the Web, and they also are the markets in which free and very-low-cost classifieds/community sites such as craigslist.org appear.

In a recent interview with the print edition of Advertising Age, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark said he felt that the vast majority of his site's classifieds would not have run in newspapers, and he said newspapers' issues with weak classifieds results is a a byproduct of the medium' problems in maintaining the "trust" of its readers.

Not all newspaper executives agree with Mr. Newmark's first point, though. One, asked at the conference's opening party how newspapers could beat Craigslist, had a simple answer: "I don't know."

Beach Blanket Babylon
The introductory remarks followed an ultra-campy series of musical interludes, courtesy of San Francisco's Beach Blanket Babylon. They featured enormous hats (a frighteningly detailed mockup of the San Francisco skyline -- including lights) and bizarre drag-queen-influenced costumes in a brief set offering bon mots towards key industry executives and issues. For instance: an aside in which a performer decked out in a glittery rabbit costume sang, "Wouldn't it be nice if the editorial and advertising departments could just be friends?" before, naturally enough, segueing into "The Impossible Dream."

After Beach Blanket Babylon finished its set, Mr. Jones took the podium and remarked: "That you don't find in Greeneville, Tenn."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that upcoming broadcast ads by the Martin Agency were shown during the conference. In fact, the clips were from a promotional film by ThinkFilm. Martin Agency is doing the campaign for the NAA.

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