Life and death in the news business

The June 9 Advertising Age read like an obituary for the news publishing industry. On Page 1, Ad Age reported that U.S. News & World Report is dropping to a biweekly frequency in response to declining ad page sales and readership of the print edition. On page 3, Ad Age reported on Tribune Company’s announced plans to downsize its operations for essentially the same reasons. (Ad Age also printed a copy of a sometimes cringe-worthy memo that Tribune owner Sam Zell wrote to company employees, in which he refers to employees as “partners” and dances around the specter of layoffs.)

Apparently the downsizing begins at the top. On June 13, the Chicago Tribune reported the departure of publisher Scott C. Smith.

Ironically enough, I was meeting with a bright 20-something professional this week, and in the course of our conversation, she casually mentioned that she’s never purchased a hard copy of a newspaper in her life. “I’ve grown up digital,” she told me. “Why would I want to mess around with ink-covered paper in my hands when I can get all the news I want each morning on my personal device?”

Her remark speaks volumes about the news publishing industry’s struggle to transition to the digital era.

So what do you do about it? If you’re a news daily like, say, the Chicago Sun-Times, I think you need to realize that readers don’t care about your brand. I’d make the Sun-Times brand recede to the background in favor of promoting its individual superstar brands like Roger Ebert and its sports columnists. The Sun-Times is no longer a news destination that many people care about. But a copy of the Sun-Times can serve as the go-to place for the best entertainment and sports commentary in the industry, if it wants to be.

Meanwhile, back in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine did something completely audacious to lock in readers of its print edition: it offered a lifetime subscription for a one-time fee of the ridiculously low $99. That’s right: for $99, you got Rolling Stone for life. Rolling Stone is one of my all-time favorite publications. So the choice was a no-brainer. Sure enough, my subscription tag has an expiration date of August 24, 2056. Which raises a few intriguing questions:

1. How did they decide I was going to kick the bucket by then?

2. In the unlikely event I do hang on that long, can I demand a free renewal?

3. In the more likely event I croak before then, will each issue simply pile up in my mail box for decades?

The lesson from Rolling Stone: desperate times call for desperate measures.

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