Should newspapers be bailed out?

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Should newspapers be bailed out? Maybe. Each day brings new reports of newspaper layoffs, sales, bankruptcy filings, cutbacks in production or home delivery and moves to online only — and, of course, diminishing ad dollars and readers.

Reports of the press' demise have gotten so bad that a group of concerned news execs are rallying around an advertising campaign and a new Web site, Newspaperproject.org, to provide insights on what newspapers can do to survive.

Despite the naysayers, newspapers still play a criti­cal and relevant role by offering context, analysis and acting as a government watchdog. Local papers can provide stories of importance to their communities, while larger national papers can shine an in-depth light on government and other news in a way that bloggers and even some microsites can't do.

Clearly, newspapers generally have been latecomers to the Web. They have struggled with the transition from merely replicating themselves to providing “online communities,” as well as the advertising tran­sition. But they have since dived into social network­ing forums, editorial blogs, forums and community journalism — and the number of unique visitors is growing. The much-hoped-for ad revenues, however, have yet to fully materialize, and there is constant discourse about providing content for free.

Newspapers also support a number of direct mar­keting initiatives. Circulation managers are finding new ways to improve customer service and loyalty. Papers and their other niche products, such as tar­geted weekly newspapers, mom or entertainment Web sites and lifestyle magazines, also offer ways to reach various audience segments. This is key to local business and retailers who use them for online ads, in-paper circulars or front-page coupons.

Despite cutbacks, papers still remain an outlet for other retailers, as well. As Jonathan Mack notes in The Work, newspaper ads helped Green Mountain Coffee boost response rates (see story, pg. 15).

Digital innovations remain a threat, but papers will keep innovating, as well. One thing to think about: While there is a growing use of digital coupons and the constant industry buzz about Google and Yahoo news, those avenues don't necessarily reach every audience either. A quarter of American adults don't use the Internet, and a third of those have no interest in going online, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

So, as other industries line up for their bailout share, such as automakers who still haven't learned the lesson of retooling, newspapers should at least get a partial bailout to help develop a new business model, invest in the technological infrastructure to build up their digital presence and provide the requisite companion training that is sorely lacking to produce and monetize their news product in as many formats as demanded.

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