Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Should you be paying more for news?

My spouse got a sales lead the other day. At least the caller seemed like a good prospect. His product was written up in the magazine she publishes, and he must have recognized how well the magazine fit his product: He was asking for copies to circulate at his sales meeting that week.

So she packed up the magazines, put her account number on the air bill, and sent off the samples. Next week, her prospect called with a great idea from the sales meeting: If she gave him her magazine's circulation list, he could send her readers information all about his product.

This is the fate of the media company: to remind other businesses about this nifty thing called advertising.

It's no small feat to find just the right audience for a product, and potentially quite costly to scratch for that audience, much less pay to send that audience regular promotions in the mail. Media have a head start, and a thrifty way to piggyback on our skill at attracting a crowd. It won't even require a trip to the post office for stamps.

Last month the Chicago Reader claimed to have found a
"top secret" Tribune project to publish a weekly magazine of its most ambitious stories. I don't know that such a project actually exists, but it's no secret that media companies are looking for new ways to get paid. As my spouse found, marketers are unclear on the old ways we get paid.

A few days ago the New York Times described how its reporters are teaching online courses in their areas of expertise. Reporters often are as knowledgeable as professors, and they engage in daily feats of public education. But it's unlikely that candidates in this fall's election will call on taxpayers to support a daily report on how their government is doing. Considering how government is doing lately, very unlikely.

So government isn't raising cash for its civic watchdogs, and as my spouse found, business isn't necessarily seizing on cheap ways to drum up business. I'm going to propose that the audience should man up. That's you, class. If the paper is looking a little thin these days, you probably aren't paying enough for your news.

You need information, about any number of things. How the local schools rate. Where the city is spending your taxes. Ways to stay healthy. Ways to save money. Every day, what you don't know can cost you. If not money, maybe just time wasted on bad movies or bland food or boring TV.

There's no monopoly on that information, but research takes time too. You can search the public library, but hours are getting shorter and the time I'm waiting for book or a disk to arrive at the West Town branch is getting longer. Most of us don't think twice about going straight to the bookstore, or the iTunes store.

A Sunday newspaper costs less than a cup of coffee. Whether you think the Tribune more like Starbuck's or Dunkin Donuts, either way you're getting a good deal. If you paid more for the newspaper there would be more room for cream.

The cream of the newspaper for you might be more of the good parts, whatever you find most valuable. Or it could be a package that you can keep around longer, or gets topped off with more frequent updates.

An e-book might work for you over lunch, and a podcast on the way home. The reporter's online course could be the best way to dig deep into a subject, like researching a college or a car purchase. The more is at stake, the less you want to leave to chance.

These are all great ideas, but I don't expect all of them will work for you. If news is like any other consumer product, 20 percent of the customers consume 80 percent of the goods. So I don't expect all of you will pay for an ad-free newspaper. But if you had just the coupons, or just the help-wanted ads from your field, you'd use them more often.

Customized advertising is getting a lot of attention online. Social networks have the potential to focus the advertising on not only your interests, but your friends' recommendations. But even more useful ads have a cost. The reviews you get on Yelp are hit-or miss. The reviews on Angie's List, you're paying for. This week Facebook users are up in arms about how few of their actions stay private. Even if you're not paying more, there's still a cost.

So I'm making a simple suggestion. If you have a favorite gadget, an iPhone or Kindle or Blackberry, see if it makes news easier to handle. If you don't, pick up a magazine or newspaper or broadcast you're not normally using, and see if it makes more sense than what you're tuned into now. The news business isn't what it used to be. But maybe it can become what you want it to be.

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