Friday, July 4, 2014

Are Newspapers Brands?

Why newspapers need less news and more brand

This was a sad week for newspapers in Toronto.

The Grid, a Toronto Star run weekly, formerly known as Eye Weekly, which had, over the past two years, grown into a trusted source of insider info on the culture and food goings on in the city, is no more. It's dead. Kaput. The plug's been pulled!

Like most people, I was shocked. Why? Why? WHY???

Well, money of course.

Though the Grid was one of the best designed newspapers in Canada (beautiful, in my opinion), and had won a number of awards, it simply wasn't making enough money. Print revenues were down, online revenues, for lack of a better word, sucked, and so TorStar shuttered the business unit, not bothering to give the Grid more time to develop new sources of revenue.

I was shocked, but not surprised. Newspapers (and magazines) have been struggling with the decline of advertising revenue for years, and more papers than ever are using online paywalls to ask their readers to make up the difference.

(Yeah, right. Read your news incognito for free, people.)

Paywalls won't make up the difference. People don't want to pay for news, because news is a commodity. You can get it anywhere and everywhere. We're inundated with news. In my opinion, people won't pay to read specific columnists either, or for special "premium" articles that can only be accessed by subscribers. Columnists come and go, and switch papers more often than not. Those premium articles aren't necessarily better than the regular ones, and I'm not quite sure people can judge the difference enough to pay for them.

So then what?

Is there anything newspapers have that make them valuable?

Well, yes. Their brand.

Just as Kraft Peanut Butter is more than just peanut butter, and Lululemon is more than just a store with yoga pants, newspapers are more than just news and columnists. They're brands. And those brands have value. They mean something to people, which makes them valuable to people.

Take the Grid. What does the Grid's brand mean to you?

I'd say:
  • indie
  • cultured
  • hipster
  • foodie
  • insider knowledge
  • snarky
  • young and trendy

The Grid knew this. According to Marketing Mag, they were in the process of exploring brand extensions that could grow their revenue, like sponsored events and custom content. In fact, they'd explored it already: events like Burger Week united beef-lovers and burger restaurants across the city, and you can bet those restaurants had to pay to be a part of it.

The Grid is (was?) a great brand, with all of the qualities I listed above, and it's a shame they didn't get the time they needed to grow that brand even more.

What about a magazine like MacLean's, Canada's version of Newsweek? What does the MacLean's brand mean to you?
I'd say:
  • informative
  • liberal
  • integrity
  • in-depth
  • critical
  • Canadian
  • authoritative
  • trusted

MacLean's knows this. In fact, they do a fantastic job of treating MacLean's as more than just a magazine. In addition to the weekly print edition, iPad edition, and website, MacLean's offers:
  • in-depth, long-form e-books (on topics such as the Shafia killings and the Queen)
  • special edition guides and tabloids (like their guide to Canadian universities and their Newsmakers and Year in Pictures editions)
  • special events that cover everything from politics to food tasting

And all these brand extensions are featured in, and work in concert with, the magazine. MacLean's thinks and acts and operates like a brand.

Other newspapers and magazines that act like brands:

So... I'll repeat: paywalls are not the answer. People don't value individual articles or columnists or news in general. They value the brands and the overall promise and experience that comes with them. Newspapers evolve, their content and brand extensions can change, but their brands will always be the same.
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