How to Use Births, Weddings, Graduations to Connect with Communities and Businesses

If we are going to save this business that we love, we need to start thinking and acting like entrepreneurs and innovators. All that once-valuable experience I gained in three-plus decades working with great journalists has actually become an obstacle.

As I wrote my Blueprint for a Complete Community Connection proposing a new business model for Gazette Communications and other media companies, I reflected on the important lessons I had learned in newsrooms. And then I tried to unlearn them.

The Complete Community Connection idea has its roots in the Newspaper Next (N2) project, which I worked on during three years at the American Press Institute. Again and again, as I presented the N2 concepts and the call for revolutionary transformation of newspaper companies, I heard an enthusiastic response and then saw organizations adopt a good idea or two but seldom fundamentally change anything.

The-way-we’ve-always-done-things is such a powerful default setting that it sucks the momentum right out of innovation. We may succeed in launching a new product or using a new tool, but our corporate culture weighs us down and holds us back. We may succeed in doing something truly new in terms of content, but we support it (if at all) with traditional advertising, rather than exploring the revenue possibilities.

This was the first lesson I am insisting that I unlearn: That journalists can’t soil our pristine souls by concerning ourselves with filthy lucre. Yes, we need to protect the integrity of our journalism. But the sad truth is that failure to innovate is damaging journalism severely today. The people responsible for ensuring the economic health of the news media have failed to develop new business models. If journalists want to protect our watchdog role, we have to lead the search for solutions.

My former boss at API, Drew Davis, likes to say (quoting a former boss himself) that the best guarantee of a free press is a profitable press. So I’ve started to regard it as my obligation to the First Amendment to help develop a profitable business model for whatever the press will become.

The urgency of this mission became clear in my last year in northern Virginia. I was privileged to have The Washington Post as my hometown paper, delivered to my door every morning. In 2007, the Post had one of the best years in the history of journalism, winning six Pulitzer Prizes in 2008 -– for aggressivewatchdogreporting, insightful economic commentary, enchanting feature writing and breaking-news hustle.

In the same year that the Post won six Pulitzers for that stellar journalism, staffer Stephen C. Fehr noted in a farewell op-ed column after taking a buyout, print advertising revenue declined by $77 million while digital advertising revenue grew by $6 million. Even a journalist can do that math: a $71 million net loss in ad revenue.

If journalism that great couldn’t stop the bleeding at The Washington Post, quality alone isn’t going to save journalism.

Since the historic flood that struck Cedar Rapids last June, my staff has excelled in using the tools of digital journalism to cover the disaster: videos, interactivedatabases, slideshows, live chats and multimediaFlashprojects. Our courts reporter was first to liveblog from a federal courtroom and we are moving ahead swiftly in using Twitter to gather and report news and to connect with our community. And that’s not enough. Enriched news coverage -– multimedia, liveblogging, crowdsourcing -– is just one facet of the Complete Community Connection.

The blueprint calls on my Gazette Communications colleagues and our industry to move beyond advertising in our revenue model and to move beyond news in our content model. I call for us to develop community content that has more lasting value than news. I call for us to develop personal content platforms that treat the big news in people’s lives as the big stories they are (in small circles), rather than boiling them down to formulaic announcements and agate listings.

Most important, I call on us to move beyond our collapsing model of selling eyeballs by the thousand (and pretending that we can somehow start charging for digital content). We need to move swiftly to become the digital marketplaces for the communities, connecting businesses with customers and conducting the transactions ourselves. Just as we need to move beyond news content of daily value, we need to move beyond commercial content of daily value. Our company’s iGuide business directory and other directories such as the Lawrence Journal-World‘s Marketplace or the Charleston Post and Courier‘s PalmettoBizBuzz need to develop as robust local search vehicles.

Consider the Complete Community Connection approach to graduation. For all of my career, I have seen newspapers go through the rite of spring: gathering photos and names of high school seniors and publishing them in special sections, adorned by a smattering of “Congratulations, Class of 2009″ ads. We could take that same data and launch a page for each senior in our Class of 2009 site (although, it would need to be Class of 2010, because we’re too close to graduation to pull it off this year).

We could engage seniors and their families, inviting them to tell the stories of these young people and their journeys to graduation –- in words, photos and videos. We could work with businesses to offer gift registries where aunts, uncles and grandparents can pull out debit cards and buy presents online (and then reserve a hotel room if they are coming to town for commencement). We could offer targeted advertising for businesses near the campuses where the grads will enroll next year (and offer e-mail or text alerts about help-wanted ads for grads going straight to work).

The blueprint offers similar plans to build content and revenue opportunities focused on driving, local knowledge, weddings, births and other important topics in people’s lives.

The Complete Community Connection blueprint is a long way from becoming a finished home where this industry can live safely in the future. But we have a plan and we’re starting to build.

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