Taking the "news" out of newspapers

Eric Gertler has a very smart post up about the future of newspapers over at the Huffington Post. Gertler, the former head of business affairs at the Daily News and the founder of nydailynews.com among other senior positions in publishing, argues correctly in Media Wonk’s view, that when it comes to surviving online, newspapers need to dump the “news” as well as the “paper.”

Gertler writes:

The most valuable asset a newspaper has is not the content, but rather its brand. To be profitable and relevant, newspapers need to do more to leverage their brand and their recognition in the local marketplace. For example, VG Nett, a European newspaper, started a weight loss membership club for its readers that now generates over $1 million annually. No doubt, newspapers can develop many other revenue generating services, including resume services, job banks, retraining services, classes, membership clubs offering discounts to select stores, and more. Or perhaps create contests, such as local version of American Idol where the newspaper discovers and then promotes local talent for singers, artists, athletes, journalists and so on.

The same thinking must extend to the web sites of newspapers, particularly as daily newspapers (with the possible exception of the Sunday paper) face a real threat of disappearing. Online editors should position their newspaper sites as the essential starting point for reader needs in the local community, guiding users in their daily lives in much the same way that newspaper editors traditionally chose the most interesting stories in print to appeal to readers. To serve as the ultimate community portals, newspaper sites need to aggregate all local listings, control the local dialogue, let users create their own community pages, and add user generated content and local reviews. Local information and community still matter even in the 21st century, which is why the brands of city newspapers remain valuable.

To fulfill this mission, newspapers need to act more boldly by aggressively partnering with others to aggregate content and information that appeals to their audience and to monetize the service stream as consumers search and transact from the site.

Exactly. It’s the applications, stupid. Not the content.

Going “hyper-local,” as some dailies have tried to do with their web sites, is not the answer, because it’s still a content-based strategy and too much of even the most local content is available from too many other sources to be valuable on its own. A local paper would provide much more value to local users online by giving them the tools to look for, discover and use information themselves.

“Monetization” then becomes a matter a capturing a portion of that value you’ve helped users create. You can’t monetize something with nothing. You have to create value first. And as bitter a pill it is for traditional news organizations to swallow (or for any “content creator” for that matter) most news content, by itself, does not have enough value online to meaningfully monetize.