On a cold, gray afternoon last week, John Malmo brought heat to the Memphis Rotary Club's weekly lunch meeting with a fire-and-brimstone take on the state of the American news industry.
The elder statesman of Memphis' advertising industry, whose business column ran for 11 years in The Commercial Appeal, had some tough love for his former publisher, but in the end he promised to deliver a formula that could save newspapers from going the way of the telegraph.
Malmo's speech was timely; it just wasn't up-to-date. News is big news at the moment, with the CA's parent company, E.H. Scripps, attempting to sell the Rocky Mountain News, industrywide layoffs, and the Tribune Company's bankruptcy making national headlines. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart may have said it best when he riddled, "What's black and white and completely over?"
Malmo's criticisms of Internet content were reminiscent of Steve Allen back in the 1950s, calling rock-and-roll a fad and Elvis a talentless flash in the pan. "I went to Digg [digg.com, a news-aggregator site]. I saw the top story was 'Awesome Old Lady Goes Berserk,'" Malmo said, with an eye-roll, as though that was somehow relevant to the fact that the way people access information has changed forever.
Malmo's plan to save the newspaper industry required three basic steps: First, he said that regional papers should get out of the national news business and focus on their own backyards. Second, papers should invest in good human resources who can provide comprehensive local coverage and, more importantly, expertise. And finally, raise the price of papers and subscriptions — "double the price," if necessary. Malmo's stated goal was not to saturate the market, as papers have tried to do in the past, but to capture only that share of people who are willing to pay more for a quality product.
Malmo's basic assumption is correct: Even in a sour economy, people will spend a little extra for a quality product. While retail sales falter and newspapers across the country bleed subscribers, iPhones are selling briskly this holiday season. It's an unmistakable signal: People want to get their old media in new, more convenient ways.
Nostalgia and tactile pleasures aside, today's newspaper is already delivered by telephone. The digital and cellular revolutions have already happened, and as content providers, newspapers have adjusted sluggishly but thoroughly. Online, they function as TV stations, documentary film producers, blogs, vlogs (video blogs), and repositories for traditional newspaper reporting. Best of all, content arrives several times a day, is never soggy, and anybody can get it anywhere in the world without delay.
Content-wise, newspapers are ready to get out of the tree-killing business. Only the revenue model hasn't made the jump to hyperspace.
"Subscribe to The Commercial Appeal," Malmo implored his audience. But, even if everybody heeded him, a few hundred subscribers won't do much to save the CA, which recently ceased home delivery to nearly 10,000 households because it cost more to create and ship the product than the company could recoup.
It's time to abandon the fable that there will be less available information when picture-padded daily papers deliver a physical product three times a week instead of seven. There will simply be fewer opportunities for broadsheet advertising.
According to Malmo, the time that Americans spend reading newspapers has slipped from 18 minutes a day to 13. He attributed this to papers being smaller. That's a bad metric. Chirographic forms of communication are actually surging because of text messaging, e-mail, social networking sites, and the simple fact that more and more people are reading newspaper content online. If anything, that's the positive newspapers and their supporters should be cheering instead of constantly accentuating the negative.
Perhaps it's time to call the newspaper crisis what it really is: an advertising-sales crisis. And if "double the price" is the best sales pitch a lion of the persuasion industry like John Malmo can come up with, then there are indeed more difficult days ahead.
Chris Davis is a Flyer staff writer and proprietor of the Flypaper Theory blog (thepeskyfly.blogspot.com).