Editorial: Get the focus on the product

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The best news about newspapers today is this: With a redesign and section launch next week at The Wall Street Journal and a new section debuting at The New York Times, the focus is off ad sales declines and retrenchment. The spotlight, for the moment at least, is on improvements to "the product." The hope here is that this will turn into a trend; that new ideas, percolating down from national newspapers and from promising readership research, will be green-lighted at local papers around the country.

Innovation and investment is the best antidote to the newspaper medium's problems. While newspapers shared in the 1990s ad boom, the sudden reversal of fortune in 2001, when total newspaper ad sales plunged nearly 9% from 2000, was painful, triggering cost cutting and layoffs as managers sought to shore up margins. As the economy rights itself, the ad sales swoon will level off (and may already be doing so). But publishers and editors can't put off getting new ideas and excitement into their product.

It's no secret that newspapers need new readers. New and better services for advertisers, easier ad buying and more added value help newspapers hold on to advertising share. But publishers and editors know they need new offerings to lure readers who have never had the "newspaper habit." Daily and Sunday newspapers still reach a vast audience. But Scarborough Research data, based on the top 50 markets and cited by the Newspaper Association of America, shows the percentage of total U.S. adults reading daily newspapers slid to 54.3% in 2001 from 58.6% in 1998. For Sunday papers, the 68.2% reach of 1998 fell to 63.7% last year.

The revamped and expanded Journal and the lifestyle, leisure and advice section coming (partly in response) from the Times give more breadth to those newspapers and provide an appealing stage for new advertisers.

Local papers have the same opportunity to grow through innovation. With smart research and a willingness to invest, newspapers today must begin the task of getting the audience they need for tomorrow.

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