New Newspaper Association CEO Caroline Little on 2012 Priorities, Pay Walls and the British Invasion

Why Business Models Need to Catch Up With Anywhere, Anytime Readers

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Caroline Little
Caroline Little

In many ways this year for newspapers has unfortunately resembled the one that came before, with a sullen economy and sprawling competition for readers and advertisers keeping the pressure on. In other ways, though, newspapers have seemed to improve their fortunes, primarily by beginning to charge for unfettered access to their websites.

As publishers now turn their focus to next year, they also have a new president and CEO at the Newspaper Association of America for the first time in 16 years: Caroline Little, who took over on Sept. 6.

Ms. Little, who was previously North America CEO of Guardian News and Media and before that led Washington Post Newsweek Interactive to its first year of profitability, has kept a low profile in her first few months at the association. But she spoke with Ad Age on Thursday -- as the association released an analysis showing that newspapers' mobile page views increased 65% between September 2010 and September 2011 -- about the industry's top focus, pay wall prospects and the invasion of British news providers.

Advertising Age: What are the priorities for the newspaper industry, and the Newspaper Association of America, in 2012?

Caroline Little: I think unfortunately the vitality and innovation that 's happening in the newspaper industry isn't being communicated as well as it could be, not only to our advertisers and partners but also to consumers. I think that 's a really important message to get out there: not only the role a newspaper plays in our communities and a democracy, but also how it is part of the glue that feeds the entire ecosystem of media.

There have been a lot of conversations about how many forms of media are out there and where newspapers' place is . That's a question that all media, frankly, is asking themselves in an age of disruption. But there are so many fascinating things coming out of where we are right now. This is such a dynamic, challenging and interesting time.

I don't view where we are in the media ecosphere as social media vs. newspapers. I view it as much more of a conversation. There are incredible tools available to journalists now and to citizens. I think we as newspapers sometimes forget to address how we can lead that , how we do lead that .

Ad Age : This year was dominated by the rise of online pay walls, with varying heights and side doors, at big newspapers such as The New York Times, the Dallas Morning News and the Baltimore Sun, and small ones such as the Bennington Banner and the Lebanon Daily News. Can pay walls work for every newspaper?

Ms. Little: I can't speak to every paper but I do think that unlike three years ago, people are acknowledging the value of newspapers. Especially with so many different delivery devices, you can have it anywhere, anytime, how you want it and when you want it. It's really interesting to see the different models evolving, whether it's the metered model or the gated model. But I think it's encouraging.

An ad from the Newspaper Association of America's 'Smart is the New Sexy' campaign
An ad from the Newspaper Association of America's 'Smart is the New Sexy' campaign

Ad Age : Are any pay-wall best practices emerging?

Ms. Little: We have done some work on that . We have convened our members and there's a lot of sharing going back and forth on best practices. That's definitely a role that we can play.

Ad Age : What are the goals of the association's new "Smart is the New Sexy" campaign, and how will you measure whether it's working?

Ms. Little: This was well into the works when I came on board, but the idea was to really talk again about the value that consumers get from newspapers, whether it's news or shopping decisions. There's a lot of data out there showing that newspapers are the first place that consumers go to make buying decisions. It was also an attempt to have a more fun, contemporary look in the artwork.

It ran primarily in our members' newspapers but a number of others have picked it up. While you're presumably reaching people who already read a newspaper, through the social media end of it there's the possibility that we can get more people seeing these than might otherwise. We measure it by the kinds of things being said on the blogs, how many people have gone to the website, how many people are tweeting about it, things like that .

Ad Age : Declining print circulation is a long-term, ongoing trouble for newspapers. Will those declines ever end and a new normal for print ever emerge? Is that still an important question for publishers and advertisers?

Ms. Little: It continues to be an important question. I don't think print is going to go away. At the same time I can't predict when the circulation in print will stop declining. But I think that 's one way of looking at the issue.

When you look at audiences overall they are phenomenal. If you were to tell me that audiences overall were going down, I'd be really worried. The challenge for us I think is audiences -- whether it's newspapers or music -- want their media when they want it and where they want it. They're not going to be bound by the distribution cycle. The challenge for us to catch up with business models that support that .

I and a lot of people love to read a newspaper in print and online, and that will continue. We will continue to benefit from print. Advertisers certainly do. There's a lot of data that supports that . We also need to address business models that support a vast number of readers who read our newspapers in all media.

Ad Age : You were most recently CEO for North America at Guardian News and Media. The Guardian, the Financial Times, the News Online, BBC and others are increasingly using the web to deliver U.S. news and capture U.S. ad spending. Is that another challenge for U.S. newspapers?

Ms. Little: There's always going to be a question about that . I also think that readers want to hear different voices and different opinions. And that 's a really good thing. That trend really grew after 9/11, if you look at the data. And in fact, there have been a lot of partnerships with the Guardian and others sharing content. So I don't think that 's a bad thing.

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