naa-logo As hard times for revenue continue,
I went to the Newspaper Association of America's annual mediaXchange conference looking for a read on where the industry's head is at.

I thought I found the sense of this meeting, the seventh I've attended, at a session last Monday on social media.  It was held in a stuffy room, a bit too small, hard to enter and exit.  Nonetheless the likes of Washington Post president Stephen Hills, New York Times Co, Vice Chairman Michael Golden and Boston Globe owner John Henry were elbowing their way into the standing room only crowd.

Which to me says — though don't look for this to be a NAA conference theme line — "we have a lot to learn."

For their trouble, the publishers got some fairly generic social media basics — "make a true brand of your stars," "get conversational," "consider video."  The Facebook representative conceded "working with us is not the easiest" but promised free analytic tools for cooperating organizations. On a lighter note, the Buzzfeed exec noted that The Ten Commandments may have been the original listicle.

And the final takeaway, courtesy vendor Kim Wilson of Social Media Desk, was that publishers may need for now to get into the game to keep pace with their audience but, lacking the huge traffic numbers of Facebook or Buzzfeed, defer monetization.

I mention this undertone of tough issues because on the surface — with a half-dozen country acts and ample stage time for Nashville business owners and politicians — the conference may have looked more feel good than dig deep.  As best I could tell, Net News Check's Micheal Depp and I were the only outside media to show up.

Indeed the fiddling-while-the-industry-smolders motif got literal at the opening Chairman's dinner Sunday where the entertainment was the Professors of Bluegrass, a group including Hills' brother and (so-help-me) the president of Yale University.

However earlier that day at a pre-conference symposium on audience development, Morris Communications Jeff Hartley gave a sober assessment of the state of metered paywalls. The vast majority of visitors never hit the monthly story limit, and only a fifth of those who hit the limit accept a subscription offer. Also print subscribers are typically resistant to registering for digital access, and a majority of those who do choose not to use it.

None of that indicates paid digital has been a failure.  Paywalls and subscription price increases have taken industry circulation revenues up around 10 percent on average over the last three years.  But there remains plenty of uncharted territory on where to go next, how to mix premium paid products with audience building free offers.

At the same symposium, the audience specialists heard a persuasive talk from Mark Stanley of Gensys on customer service.  "Stop trying to delight your customers," he said. What they want instead is "an effortless experience" — a quick and satisfactory resolution to their problem.

So it's a dubious saving to contract an offshore call center to resolve complaints about misdelivered papers.  And as several subsequent speakers noted, slow-to-load, hard-to-navigate sites or payment systems will drive potential customers away.

Mobile and millennials got heavy attention.  A number of speakers were positive and deferential: Vox Founder Jim Bankoff said his family of seven sites, aimed at the under 40 crowd, mimics the traditional section organization of newspapers.

However popular digital futurist Amy Webb was blunt: "A lot of things you guys think are innovative are well into the mainstream," she said.  Recent analysis of smart phone use, Webb said, show users not only going to the device 50 or 60 times a day for sessions of two minutes or so but making "visual decisions [of whether to continue] in less than three seconds."

An engaging three-second tease into a news story sounds like a mighty tight squeeze to engineer.  I also heard the publishers getting slightly conflicting advice on whether to embrace "news snacks," or place their bets on quality content, preferably with a component of emotional involvement.

From the presentations and separate conversation with execs, I heard a lot of interest in verticals — both as a strategy to attract digital users, some of them new readers, and to sell targeted ads and sponsorships at a premium over rock-bottom general interest banner rates.

As one would expect, there was also a good deal of talk of personalization of news and ad content, the concept often loosely referred to as "big data."  But former publisher and pr/advertising exec Brian Tierney cautioned against crossing over to "the creepiness factor." For instance Google and competitor platforms can now harvest personal information from your calendar and emails, but  it would trigger privacy objections if they or news organizations acted on that information.

A final challenge I heard repeatedly is how newspaper organizations can get scale right. For instance, Bankoff almost as an aside, mentioned that Vox built out a content management system to fit its needs early on, ditto Vice and Buzzfeed.  Only the biggest of newspaper organizations can afford to do the same.  And they have not always gotten it right on the first or second try.

For that and related new opportunities like video, platoons of vendors are standing by to help.  But besides needing to shop very carefully, newspaper organizations are entering into a series of revenue splits when they need to hog new revenue streams to counter print ad losses.

In the end, I also don't begrudge the industry some loud music and celebration.  As the NAA met in a Nashville, a new independent study was published judging American newspapers to be resilient and profitable, though much smaller than they used to be.

I think the publishers headed home with a lot of work to do, but with good focus on what lies ahead -- and not anywhere near dead as doomsayers had predicted five years ago.

(Disclosures:  I do some paid consulting on the NAA conference program.  Poynter currently has digital training contracts with McClatchy, Scripps and Gannett).