Newspaper Publishers Really Need Some Kind of Innovation

At NAA: Wish They Could Party Like It's 1999, but It's 2009

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SAN DIEGO (AdAge.com) -- Top newspaper publishers gathered here yesterday for the industry's big annual convention, a potentially grim affair set near the water in San Diego. If the setting seemed a bit sunny for the times, attendees pointed out at cocktails, remember that the convention booked the serviceable Manchester Grand Hyatt this year; the last time the Newspaper Association of America met in San Diego, it used the Hotel Del Coronado, a fancier nearby resort.

This year's NAA conference is at San Diego's serviceable Manchester Grand Hyatt.
This year's NAA conference is at San Diego's serviceable Manchester Grand Hyatt.
The theme this year is innovation, a solid choice that nonetheless made some attendees wish the calendar said 1999, not 2009. Newspapers have already lost so many opportunities: They didn't create an early but brightly lit rival to Craigslist; they didn't shore up their balance sheets for the coming storm, instead paying big dividends, buying back stock and borrowing to buy more newspapers; they didn't hike pay for the business side to attract the best to their defense; they didn't make their sites comprehensive tools and bazaars as well as news authorities; they cut budgets, certainly, but they didn't recalibrate their businesses for the day their monopolies would die.

The unofficial agenda
Off the official agenda of the conference, many publishers are wondering whether there's a way to start charging for web content after all this time giving it away. An "unofficial" meeting will be held among a group of the publishers to talk about how to save the subscription revenue stream.

Now that the recession has combined with digital media, the ramifications of industry's mistakes are all too clear: Tribune, the Sun-Times Media Group, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Philadelphia's big dailies have all been driven into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver has shut down. Hearst's Seattle Post Intelligencer has quit print and is trying to make a go of it online.

And then Friday The Boston Globe reported that The New York Times Co. has threatened to shut the Globe down too. The Times Co. paid $1.1 billion for the Globe in 1993.

Media groups such as the Magazine Publishers of America and the Outdoor Advertising Association of America have canceled their annual meetings this year, figuring their members have other priorities.

'Change will be rewarded'
The newspaper association chose to proceed, however, a decision acknowledged in a welcome letter from Gary B. Pruitt, chairman, president and CEO of McClatchy Co., as well as chair of the conference. "As we meet this year, our industry's transformation has run headlong into the most difficult economy in memory," he wrote. "The fact that we're here reflects our determination to continue to grow and learn and change, as well as our confidence that change will be rewarded."

The agenda includes sessions such as "Rethinking Your Publications Strategies" and "Restructuring for Future Growth." The meeting concludes tomorrow with a speech by Google CEO Eric Schmidt -- whose company is increasingly accused of undermining newspapers' work and business model.

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