End of Google’s Print Ads program a blow for newspapers

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When Google announced this month that it is discontinuing its Print Ads program, newspapers lost a creative weapon in their arsenal as they fight steep declines in print advertising. The program, which helped place print ads from Google search advertisers in newspapers, will officially end Feb. 28.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt sees newspapers as important for the functioning of democracies and for providing indispensable content for Internet search engines. In a January interview with Fortune, he said of Google’s efforts to help the newspaper industry, “We’ve tried to get newspapers to have more tightly integrated products with ours. We’d like to help them better monetize their customer base. We have tools that make that easier. I wish I had a brilliant idea, but I don’t. These little things help, but they don’t fundamentally solve the problem.”

Google Print Ads appeared to be very popular with newspapers. In a blog post announcing the demise of Google Print Ads, Spencer Spinnell, director of the program, said the effort began with 50 newspaper partners in November 2006 and now has 800 U.S. newspapers. “We will continue to devote a team of people to look at how we can help newspaper companies,” Spinnell said in the post. “It is clear that the current Print Ads product is not the right solution, so we are freeing up those resources to try to come up with new and innovative online solutions that will have a meaningful impact for users, advertisers and publishers.”

Google Print Ads didn’t appear to make a dent in newspaper print advertising’s decline. Between 2005 and 2012, eMarketer projects that newspaper ad revenue will decline from $49.4 billion to $28.4 billion, a plunge of 42.5%.

“The question is how soon and how well can the newspaper business make a transition where they can start somehow replacing the lost revenue on the print side with online revenue,” said Gartner Group analyst Andrew Frank.

Another key question is how much Google and other online businesses can help. Google continues to offer GoogleNews, which aggregates newspaper content from around the country and the world. This site in the Google network offers newspaper stories added exposure. Google also offers its AdSense program to help newspapers generate online ad revenue, and tools, such as GoogleMaps, to enhance online content.

Yahoo has its own programs in place to aid newspapers. Yahoo’s Newspaper Consortium Partnership includes an online advertising network, Yahoo HotJobs, and the ability of member newspapers to implement Yahoo’s paid search technology on their sites. Yahoo said the partnership includes 796 newspapers.

“The cross-sell program [newspaper sales forces selling Yahoo inventory] is seeing some good successes,” said Lem Lloyd, VP-U.S. partnerships for Yahoo. “Several newspapers have already sold $1 million in ads.”

Lloyd also said that Yahoo’s use of local news headline links across its sites has led to an average of 17 million referrals a month to the 300 newspaper sites participating in the content distribution program.

“A.H. Belo’s Dallas Morning News says that the headline placements on can account for up to 27% of a day’s page views and up to 65% of a day’s unique visitors,” Lloyd said.

Yahoo, Google and others may be developing new programs to help newspapers—and may even resurrect some old programs one day.

“My feeling is that Google’s retirement from print may not be a permanent thing,” he said. “One of the problems is that the technology of targeted advertising in print has not quite caught up with Google and its ability to target in real time against the content of an article.”

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