"We can't afford to sit back while television, online services and the telecommunications industry define the market ... at the expense of newspapers," NAA President-CEO Cathleen Black said at the group's annual marketing conference here last week.
While Ms. Black offered no other specifics about the proposed campaign, it was seen as unlikely that the NAA will follow New York-based Young & Rubicam's recommendation to spend $20 million to $50 million in the next few years.
No agency has been hired, but Y&R is considered a likely contender, given its recent NAA research assignment.
Upstart Boston shop Heater-Easdon is also vying for the business. To get the NAA's attention, it created a video showing a twentysomething woman debating a "talking head" in a TV set about the value of newspapers. The video was shown at the convention.
Many newspaper executives supported the idea of an image campaign, though they couldn't commit to financial support without knowing specifics.
(The NAA has already asked the top 50 newspapers for $6 million over three years to support the Newspaper National Network, a sales force hired to attract national advertising.)
The ad campaign is "badly needed," said Denny Atkin, ad director of The Oregonian in Portland. "We have a lot to be proud of."
"We have massively undersold ourselves," said Mike Kment, corporate sales director at Davenport, Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, owner of 19 dailies.
The pitch for a national image campaign comes as the industry shows continuous signs of improvement. Daily papers are expected to post ad revenue gains of about 6% to $33.8 billion for the year. Ad revenue climbed 4% last year.
"Business was good the first quarter, and the second quarter is even better," said Bob Holzkamp, VP-sales and marketing for the Chicago-based Tribune Co., which saw a 9% gain in newspaper ad revenue in the second quarter.
But newspaper executives still realize the challenges ahead in positioning their medium for the future.
Retail consultant Carol Farmer of Boca Raton, Fla., offered a sobering look at the widening generation gap. Younger baby boomers and Generation Xers won't automatically grow into the reading habit as did those before them.
"The rules have changed certainly in your industry," she said. "Change with them or get left behind."