By Dan Yurman djysrv@gmail.com

Dan Yurman is CDPUG’s blogmeister.  The views expressed here are his own.

I write as a seven-day-a-week subscriber to the newspaper to comment on recent news reports that the parent firm, Advance, is considering plans to trim the publication schedule and perhaps even stop producing a paper edition altogether.  I bring to this message more than three decades of work with print, radio, and online news venues.

I would like to comment on some of the alternatives being aired in the industry which are attributed to Advance.

· Web online publication – I feel this move would be a huge mistake. The newspaper is not going to be competitive against free online news resources. Plus, removing the physical newspaper from homes will severely reduce its visibility and influence in the community. Advertisers will seek other channels to promote themselves.

· Reducing home delivery to the weekends – This option is like the online only idea except it reportedly would involve news stand sales as a substitute for home delivery. This option is a recipe for failure and guarantees further revenue reductions and cost cutting. Here’s why. Like many Clevelanders, I commute to work by car. I’m not going to pull off I-480 just to get a newspaper. There is no news stand where I work. I’m not going to run around every day to make sure I have a pocket full of quarters to buy the weekday paper edition from a machine.

· Reducing publication frequency by eliminating Saturday or Monday editions – This option makes sense only if you plow the savings back into investment the quality of the Sunday edition. It would make sense since Sunday is also the biggest day for news stand sales, e.g., at supermarkets, etc. Advertisers would likely reward the newspaper with increased business based on better circulation for the improved Sunday paper.

· Attain control of the newspaper’s web site – As I understand it, the Cleveland Plain Dealer does not control the web site the same way it controls the print edition. This has led to a question of whether there is a credible online strategy for the newspaper. To succeed in the online world, the newspaper must own and operate the online edition and manage it as a competitive business and not as a mirror or half-hearted after-thought of the print edition.

· Improve the online edition – Overall, the online experience shows, sadly, a pattern of under-investment and poor execution of online technologies. You are leaving money on the table by not organizing a more robust Internet strategy. The online edition is a confusing babble of popup ads, news items, and sports a layout that would make navigating a K-Mart store a walk in the park.

Rethink the Internet

· The newspaper needs to rethink its approach to the Internet. The point of online strategy is to drive eyeballs to one specific property which would be the newspaper’s web page. In turn, it must be an appealing experience which keeps the reader’s interest. There are a lot of things that don’t work well right now. If the newspaper goes to an partial online publication strategy without fixing things, it will speed up the demise of the newspaper

The recent re-launch of Cleveland.com did not help things as its design remains a jumble of images and headlines competing for the reader’s attention like hawkers in a flea market. The search engine produces inconsistent results and often misses items that appeared both online and in print.

The mobile phone edition is often out of date, and incomplete, in terms of content, compared to the online edition and appears to suffer from neglect. There are no text alert services, which could be a source of revenue, for sports scores, breaking news, entertainment events, weather, etc. Cleveland’s TV stations all compete in the mobile market gaining market share at the expense of a traditional newspaper. One of them gets $5 a user for a weather app that repackages information available for free elsewhere.

There is no well-designed tablet edition, e.g., iPad or Android based, to lure readers with a superior online reading experience. The current iPad app is mirror of the design mess at the main web site. Tablets and mobile devices are the fastest growing Internet markets. The newspaper needs a business and a design strategy to effectively tap into them. A number of newspapers have found new revenue in offering a distinctive, well-designed tablet edition for a subscription fee without throwing up a full paywall that blocks the rest of the paper’s online content to ordinary web browsers.  Many papers have “porous paywalls” that allow a certain number of free articles per month followed by a subscription model for continued access.

In terms of social media, I also see a lack of full utilization of the potential of these channels. The Twitter account shows little consistency in terms of topics, frequency of update, or segmentation into channels, e.g., Twitter feeds for sports, politics, business, entertainment, and local news.

The Facebook page attempts to draw interactive responses from people who “like” it, but the response numbers are sometimes in the single digits suggesting low levels of online engagement with readers.

Yes, the online world is a challenge, but it can be met if the newspaper will think about its options and its audiences rather than just jumping to the knee jerk reflex of a downward spiral of cost cutting.

This is a tough review, but as I see it you do not have a choice of doing either print or online editions. You must do both well with a sustainable business model.

In closing let me say that I hope to continue to be a subscriber to the paper edition and to see improvements over time to the online version.

Want to know more?

Facebook Page – Save the Plain Dealer

The Nov 18 response to the Save the Plain Dealer campaign from the Cleveland Plain Dealer Publisher and Editor

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