Editor’s Note: Caroline Little will be a featured speaker at the 2013 ONA Convention, Feb. 13-14 in Columbus.

By Caroline Little, NAA

It seems like each time a newspaper implements a bold new strategy or deviates from the traditional model, pundits interpret those changes as acts of desperation. Ironically, these are often the same pundits who claim newspapers are not innovating and transforming fast enough.

Developments such as reduction of publication frequency, adoption of more aggressive paid-content strategies and creation of full-service digital agencies need to be viewed through a more objective lens – as the experimentation required to secure continued quality journalism and a sustainable business model for the future.

The transformation of newspapers is based on three factors:

1) First is leveraging newspapers’ competitive strengths: local market insights, content creation and packaging, local sales forces and continued strong brand equity. Shifting economic dynamics of the business have forced a rethinking of how best to deploy those assets. On the content side, the focus is on investments in original content most valued by local communities, enterprise journalism that is essential to society, and new approaches for soft news, op/eds or non-news content. And digital platforms are providing the ability to offer advertisers multiple solutions, deeper analytics and greater ROI.

2) Second is building a sustainable digital model. While there certainly will be an audience for print for the foreseeable future, there is no question that digital will be the dominant platform going forward. Solutions that combine the best of online and offline platforms – the serendipity, engagement, “browsability” and depth of print; the immediacy, “shareability” and discovery of digital – will have a competitive advantage over those that don’t.

3) Third is cementing newspapers’ position in their communities. Research shows that newspapers are already the most trusted media brands in local markets. They are working harder to maintain their position as the hub of community information, activity and conversation.

Why will newspapers survive? Because the assets and value they historically have provided to both readers and advertisers are enduring and sustainable in this new digital ecosystem, as the data show.

We know from NAA’s multiplatform study by Magid that in an average week, 74 percent of Internet users turn to newspaper content across media platforms – opening more channels for newspapers to attract new audiences and expand ways to drive revenue.

An Online Publishers Association study reveals that 41 percent of tablet users regularly access local news on the device, the third most popular activity (watching video and getting weather information, both of which can be done with newspaper sites and apps, ranked first and second).

According to comScore, newspapers outperform the Internet overall in terms of driving traffic from mobile devices. Mobile has yet to find a solid advertising proposition, but when it does – along with video and other emerging platforms – newspapers are well positioned to capitalize on that spending.

A key area of strength and a continued differentiator for newspapers is top-notch journalism. Consumers still highly value quality journalism by trained reporters and informed judgments by editors about news content and sources. It is these stories that start the conversation in the media ecosphere.

And let’s not forget about print. For a large and attractive segment of the local market, print continues to be a valued platform for accessing local information and identifying advertising deals. Pew Research Center has reported that newspapers are the top source (or tied for the top) in 11 of 16 news topics explored. And according to Magid’s research for NAA, consumers overwhelmingly view ads in newspapers as more believable and trustworthy than those in any other medium.

Newspapers online account for more than 113 unique visitors (November 2012), which represents nearly 64 percent of Internet users in a month. Newspapers in print and online reach 58 percent of the 18-34 age group in print and online in an average week.

Industry leaders are not naïve, nor are they in denial about the challenges facing newspapers. There is no silver bullet. There is no looking back. There is only the continued production of quality content, aggressive efforts to connect marketers with local audiences, and continued trial and error to find models for growth. A strategy is in place: Diversify revenue sources; lessen reliance on traditional advertising; and leverage local competitive strengths and assets in new ways to serve readers and advertisers efficiently and effectively.

Newspapers won’t get it right every time. What industry or company ever does? But the path to success and growth requires the continual innovation and experimentation – based on deep analytics – that we now see taking place industry-wide.

The level of passionate discourse about the future of the industry is, I believe, driven by anxiety about the potential disappearance of the vital role newspapers serve in our society. That anxiety is understandable.  The reality is that industry leaders are working hard and smart to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The pundits may write us off. The marketplace has not.

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