Not too hard to figure out how this has come to pass. Declining revenue yields declining editorial budgets, which yield declining journalistic quality. Meanwhile, smaller community papers are stealing market share by concentrating on local coverage that the Times increasingly lacks the staff and news hole to match. Young adults are increasingly detached from civic affairs, and those who aren't grew up getting their information online -- for free, which is a difficult price point to compete with.
Fortunately, in their immense wisdom, the paper's owners -- the Chicago-based Tribune Co. -- have found a series of magical solutions:
1. Dumb down the news and attract readers with tabloid-style headlines. No nude pinups on page three yet, but give it six more months.
2. Redesign the front page about every third week to make less look like more.
3. Reduce costs by firing all the reporters and editors -- and the top managers who refuse to do more firings. Sure, that destroys the product, but it keeps Wall Street off your back.
4. Sell the paper to local billionaire suckers. No deal yet, but somewhere in Hollywood is a Charles Foster Kane just waiting to happen.
There's also an item No. 5: Perfunctorily run an advertising campaign to lure new readers into the fold -- and perhaps recapture some of those who have fled. Yeah. Fat chance.
Designed to fail
An in-house spot trumpeting the latest new design seems almost designed to fail, essentially offering no reason to take the Times except for its spruced-up graphics, which the commercial barely shows.
The spot is done from the point of view of a newspaper vending machine, as seven diverse but uniformly uninteresting Angelinos approach it to peer in. Maybe they're peering in to see one of the suddenly sensationalistic headlines, or maybe to steal a peek at a photo or to ogle the new layout. It's unclear. What's clear is that, for 25 of 30 seconds, the focus of the ad, through a wide-angle lens that makes everyone look unattractive, is not the L.A. Times but them.
And, uh, who cares about them?
Nobody. By the time the product shot comes on -- with the onscreen type about the "Fresh. New. Look." (we hope they punctuate better in the actual newspaper) -- we're averting our eyes from the fish-eye view of humanity. If anyone does hang around to see the payoff, they may observe that only one of the seven actually stuffs quarters in to buy a paper.
Simple value proposition
Ugh. Yes, the business problem is tough, but historically some circulation-promotion campaigns have worked well, often with a simple value proposition: so much fascinating stuff every day for the price of a postage stamp. Alas, not everybody is, say, AdReview, for whom the paper on the doorstep each morning is like a stack of gifts under the tree. But there are other appeals, too, from "worth its price in supermarket coupons" to the funny pages.
Considering the current marketplace challenges, maybe it's even time to be aggressive. The Wall Street Journal has done well positioning itself as a business advantage. This could be taken a step farther: newspaper as required reading for life, dramatized in vignettes of people being caught clueless about something they ought to know.
Theme line: "How to Be an Ignoramus." Maybe a little confrontational, but just think of the size of the market.
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Review: 2 stars
Marketer: Los Angeles Times