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July 14, 2013
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Publisher’s Notebook: We’re not ready to abandon our most loyal customers

News out of Portland that The Oregonian will be reducing the number of home delivery days (from seven to three), while beefing up its Internet news format was sad, but not surprising.

That paper’s parent company, Advance Publications Inc., has made similar moves in New Orleans and elsewhere, with mixed results.

The company theory is that more and more people are using digital tools to consume news and information and that there isn’t much future in print.

Some of that’s true. But I’ll get to the flip side in a minute.

The Oregonian’s publisher, N. Christian Anderson, used a quote from hockey great Wayne Gretsky to explain the business strategy. “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” Gretsky has said.

In other words, the “puck” in our business is going to be in digital, not print, so The Oregonian decided to get there first.

Unfortunately, that means leaving probably thousands of The Oregonian’s best customers behind, where the proverbial “puck” currently resides. I’ll assume there were still thousands of loyal Oregonian subscribers who actually enjoyed getting the paper delivered to their porch every day. My assumption is based on the fact that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Oregonian has always been one of the best papers in America and because the baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) still represent the largest segment of our population. Many of them still enjoy a daily newspaper.

The Advance Publications business strategy pretty much left The Oregonian’s very best customers (seven-day print subscribers) hanging in the wind (you won’t get the paper delivered seven days, so go out and find one in a newsstand, or go to the Internet and read it there if you want to).

It’s never a good idea to abandon your most loyal customers. J.C. Penney Co. discovered that the hard way. That company blew up its business model a few years ago after hiring a guy out of Apple (the one who launched the Apple retail shops) to run it. They basically told their most loyal customers that their large department stores were not that great and that the way of the future was smaller shopping “boutiques.”

Unfortunately, J.C. Penney’s best customers didn’t buy in and took their shopping money elsewhere. The CEO lost his job and they brought the old CEO back in an effort to unwind things.

Newspaper readers are creatures of habit and our habits get stronger with age. The one thing old people hate more than anything is change. I know that because, well, I’m old, and I kind of like a routine. I order the same coffee the same way every morning and I’d like that not to be screwed with too much.

If you break that habit (reducing home delivery from seven to three days per week), you’ve caused significant customer disruption. Once your customers learn to live without you four days they’ll learn to live without you the rest of the week. Besides, when you are retired you tend to lose track of the days, leaving you guessing when your damned newspaper is coming next.

What happened in New Orleans — after the same owners cut the frequency of the Times-Picayune to three days a week — ought to serve as a reminder that we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss print. There is now a newspaper war in New Orleans after another company decided to publish a daily paper called The Advocate.

In other words, if you don’t take care of your best customers, someone else will.

Don’t get me wrong. The train is coming. The information world is not what it once was and there is no turning back. Not unlike libraries, or bookstores, newspapers may one day be relics. But there will always be a demand for information and most newspapers have been investing in digital platforms for years now. A paper is just another medium, like a smartphone, television, radio, laptop or tablet.

Information is king and all that matters is providing the kind of information that will capture enough eyeballs (consumers) to make you a viable marketing tool. That’s how the bills are paid in the media business.

Which leads me to our competitors. It’s amusing to me that radio and television folks are gloating over the possible death of newspapers, using The Oregonian as an example of that demise.

But they are not immune to the information wave that is washing over “mainstream media” today. My new truck is pretty smart. It knows my smartphone and when I turn the ignition it syncs with it, allowing me to listen to my iTunes or Pandora on my car radio. In fact, most new cars come standard with satellite radio (I listened to the New York Yankees game on the way home last week). How do you think that is impacting traditional local radio audience? How many people still listen to local radio stations? And if they are listening to the local radio stations, how many listen to the commercials?

The same goes for television. Last time I checked there were more than 100 channels on cable. I can also subscribe to Netflix and have my favorite TV shows streamed to my computer, tablet or phone (sans commercials). And why would I watch a local commercial when I can TiVo right through it, or change the channel? I use commercials as a chance to go to the bathroom or rotate my sprinklers.

Do you think the future for radio and television is any rosier than newspapers? Ask your teen kids if they listen to local radio when they are driving, or watch local network television (on a TV, not laptop) at home. I’ll guess that in 10 years consumers will have chips implanted that will feed information directly to the brain and eyeglasses will serve as video screens.

They have already been experimenting with wall paint filled with thousands of microscopic motors that could turn an entire living-room wall into an interactive video display.

This information explosion is causing disruption in every medium, not just the newspaper industry. The good news is that we still have a strong and loyal print readership, while continuing to grow our digital audience. I think print still has a pretty good shelf life and, unlike some of our colleagues, we’re not ready to abandon our most loyal customers.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher of The News-Review. He can be reached at 541-957-4263 or jackerman@nrtoday.com.


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The News-Review Updated Jul 15, 2013 12:55PM Published Jul 15, 2013 10:38AM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.