"The reach of our newspapers is far greater than mere circulation numbers imply," said Boston Globe Publisher Richard Gilman, pointing to a chart comparing paid-circulation trends to more-encouraging readership figures. "So when you're speaking to people outside our industry, when you're talking to advertisers, when you're speaking to Wall Street ... we do ourselves a great service if we focus on the right side of this chart."
At the Newspaper Association of America conference last week, Mr. Gilman and his fellow publishers argued that "newspaper media" -- through flagship editions, niche publications, Web sites and direct mail --dominate local markets and feature ads that, unlike some broadcast and digital alternatives, readers want to see and can't use technology such as digital video recorders and pop-up blockers to avoid.
That point is at the heart of a new national campaign produced by the Martin Agency dubbing newspapers "a destination, not a distraction." Media buyers-the targets of the advertising effort-say they agree wholeheartedly with that pitch, but that publishers remain woefully unprepared to capitalize on its appeal.
Andrew Swinand, group client leader at Starcom USA, told publishers that their metrics, rates and customer service all lag far behind other media. "Please, please, please make it easier," he said, holding the ease in which he can spend millions on the print, cable, Internet and cellphone services ESPN owns in direct contrast to many newspapers' nonexistent bundled offerings. "You have more right to succeed than ESPN does, but it's just too hard."
Speaking to a room filled with newspaper executives -- all of whom offered nary a word in protest -- Mr. Swinand went on to present a laundry list of their deficiencies. The Internet Advertising Bureau offers standardized units, rates and purchasing processes, but newspapers, he said, "give you three different rates if you call three different people."
Whereas TV stations can guarantee the instant an ad will appear, newspaper publishers generally won't even guarantee an ad will run the day it is scheduled. "I had a client who said they'd fire us if we couldn't guarantee a run date," he said. "Do you think I put them in newspapers?"
"It's obvious," the Globe's Mr. Gilman said, "that we have a long way to go."
Other buyers said they share the same frustrations, but they point to signs that suggest publishers are slowly coming around. "They're the slowest form of media to evolve," said Robin Steinberg, director-print investment, MediaVest. "They're beginning to talk the right talk, but they're not delivering on expectation as of yet."
Signs of progress -- or at least of hitting bottom -- are also beginning to register on Wall Street, where discontent with publishers' financial performances have sent most publishers' stock prices plummeting during the past two years, and prompted a group of activist investors to force the recent sale of No. 2 publisher Knight-Ridder to the Sacramento-based McClatchy Co.
In a research note issued last week, Merrill Lynch analyst Lauren Fine declared that newspaper stocks had "bottomed." And a separate report by Prudential Equity Research analyst Steven Barlow noted improved circulation quality industrywide.
Those could be taken as signs of life in a depressed -- but still highly profitable -- industry.
"The world changed a lot and we changed a little," outgoing NAA President Jay Smith, president, Cox Newspapers, told attendees. "We need to stop whining and start winning."