On Change

Newspapers: The connecting people business

By Norbert Specker/December 2003 - What business are you in?

Newpapers? Well, yes, I know, but what is the business? Stop a moment and explain it to a little child. What is your business? Are you selling the amount of time and the amount of people who look at a particular piece of paper? Or do you sell stories, and the more people who pay you for that story the better job you have done? Or do you sell pretty surprise packages? Maybe you sell the most useful collection of practical information people in your area can get?

You are in the business you think you are in. Perception is reality. Changing perception therefore changes reality. This is particularly interesting if the reality you look at right now is not bringing you any joy.

Professor Peter Kruse of the University of Bremen claims the economies of scale that for years dominated business strategies are challenged by economies of connectivity. Here is an example:

We all know that search ranking with Google is based strongly on connectivity: the more and the more important sites link to you, the higher up in the results you will appear. As the position on a search engine directly — and sometimes devastatingly so — determines business success on the web (there is no business beyond the first search screen), we know the importance of connectivity to be true in the realm of the Internet.

How about offline, though? In the “real world” as many still would label it? Of all the businesses in the analogue world, newspapers are the business that thrives on connectivity the most and the best. Newspapers are the best-connected businesses in any community. There is no business that connects so many people to each other. Nobody has probably ever researched this but let us look at the ways:

1. It is the connection through things that two people read. Like with TV, it is less common that you can be sure the other person has seen or read the same thing you have. But if the person did, it is a very popular way to connect. How many people do you think talk with each other each day about something your newspaper wrote?

2. The advertisements. Advertisers put them into the newspaper because they hope to connect readers with their product. How many of your readers see an ad, then connect to the company and the people working in that shop or theatre?

3. The classifieds — jobs, cars, houses, dating, and the many other areas this section entails. How many people per ad on average connect to the person who put the ad in?

You probably do not know the numbers but might agree that the more connections between people a newspaper enables, the stronger its commercial base.

So, the business you are in is the “Connecting People Business.” Feel a change of reality already?

Could your newspaper be better at it? Much better? Is it happening enough that people talk about something your newspaper published? Do you help advertisers make sure people go and see them? And is it particularly easy for people to connect with classifieds and the people who put them in the newspaper?

As for the online part of the connecting people business, it is one of the great mysteries of the last 10 years that newspapers did not manage to transpose their outstanding basic networking competence in the offline world online — into an environment that has come to represent networks of any kind and offers every imaginable tool to optimise networking. A truly amazing failure.

However, it is not too late. Once your organisation perceives itself as being in the business of connecting people, the best Internet strategy will come naturally. The same connection-oriented perception is behind every great Internet company, from eBay to Google and Amazon.

The recent solid investment of US$6.3 million by Knight Ridder and The Washington Post in the social network site Tribe.com might give you additional food for thought as it points toward a perceived weakness by those newspapers that they deemed needs rectifying. I would hold they are not the only ones.

This article was referenced by the Hindustan Times on January 31, 2004, Rafat Ali's Paid Content, the Italian Fogli di Stile, the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) Editors' Blog

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Norbert Specker is the founder of Interactive Publishing GmbH, a service and intervention company dedicated to support the newspaper publishing industry.


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