How Jeff Bezos Just Might Save Newspapers

D. Eadward Tree is not impressed. The pseudonymous publishing industry pundit, known for his wit and wisdom as Chief Arborist of the Dead Tree Edition blog, is put off by comments from Amazon CEO and soon-to-be Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos regarding his philosophy for running a newspaper.

Bezos said in an interview this week that he intends to put the Post‘s readers first, and stated his skepticism for “any mission that has advertisers at its centerpiece.”

“The last time I looked, the vast majority of American newspapers’ revenue came not from readers but from another type of customer – advertisers,” Tree writes.

As a former newspaperman myself, my instinct is to agree with Tree. Advertisers pay the bills—therefore, on the business side, they’re the ones who need to be catered to (assuming that Church and State wall is strictly policed). That’s why publishers from The New York Times Co. to Atlantic Media are introducing innovative new ad strategies, such as the Times’ Ricochet project, which guarantees an advertiser’s display ad appears with linked content.

But what if Tree is wrong, and Bezos is right? At some point, we in media have to face the music—or in this case, the hard evidence at hand. Conventional wisdom states that newspapers must focus on advertisers, but in the digital era, focusing one’s business plan around advertising has proved to be a disaster. Ad revenue has plummeted, even at the most innovative of media outfits—the New York Times reported late last year that its parent company’s print and digital advertising revenues were shrinking. The only positive trend on the balance sheet was revenue growth from digital subscriptions—those pesky readers Bezos talks about.

At Amazon, Bezos has proven a master of building customer loyalty and brand affection. People trust Amazon and its pledge to make things right for consumers in the face of problems. As newspapers increasingly turn to digital subscriptions to make up for lost ad revenue, this is exactly what is needed to build and maintain loyalty. Smart digital tools, customization, product bundling, a variety of purchase options (by the article, by the day, by the month, etc.)—these are kind of things Bezos knows about, and the kind of thing that could save newspapers.

Relying on advertisers sure aint it. For newspapers, focusing on advertisers is a dead end. It’s not that ads will not continue to be important, but it just might be a better strategy to build the readership first, and then sell ads to that coveted base of paying readers. I don’t know if this is what Bezos has in mind, but I do know the newspaper industry is in desperate need of a new plan. It may be time to ditch the conventional wisdom.

The Digital Media Kit: Are You ‘Making It Easy’?

Last week I wrote about the importance of designing Web-friendly media kits, which is one of the more pressing issues to consider today. (See below) But there is another practice I want to address—a pet peeve of mine: requiring someone to fill out his/her name and e-mail address, sometimes along with a good deal of additional information, in order to be able to download or access the kit.

I see this as a potential hindrance to sales. While publishers might like to know who is downloading their media kits, and in theory* using those as potential leads, it is not user-friendly. Who wants to provide her name for something today when it is suggests that doing so may result in unwanted calls or e-mails from salespeople? It is an additional step, an additional possible hurdle to getting someone information that can sell them on your products. Why not just give it to them?

What happens to someone who stumbles upon your site and thinks, “Hmm. This might be a good place to advertise. Let me look into it further.” And when prompted to provide his/her name, they forego downloading the media kit. They don’t know enough about you at that point to necessarily want to engage directly with you.

You might think this isn’t likely to happen, but do you know for sure?

Does anyone check out the number of “abandons” at this point on the site in their web statistics? It might be worth taking a look. If it’s not a problem, great. If it is, it may be worth changing your ways.

*Part of the other concern I have is that some publishers don’t even use the information that is collected. It is dumped into a black hole. So if you are requiring people to give you their names, are you at least using the information?

The whole point can be summed up in what I see as an effective motto to follow regarding providing access to content of any kind, whether in print or online, mobile or otherwise: “Make it easy.” Make it easy to access your content. Make it easy to buy what you’re selling.