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Be alert to creeping obsolescence in outdoor communications

bloomBy Phil Bloom OWAA President     A remarkable thing happened the day after Barack Obama was elected U.S. president in November. People bought newspapers. They bought them by the thousands from coast to coast. Anticipating the historic outcome of the election, many newspapers boosted their press runs by as much as 100 percent and still sold out. When the supply was gone, they printed more. Those, too, were gobbled up, and sometimes in spite of inflated prices. After selling out its initial press run, the Washington Post printed 350,000 more copies and tripled the normal newsstand price to $1.50. The New York Times advertised its reprints for $14.95, but that’s nothing compared to a reported eBay bid of $600 for a single copy. Newspapers were hard to find. I tried seven locations in Indianapolis that day for a copy of The Star and came up empty at every one. (At least that paper’s crossword puzzle is online.) For anyone who has worked in the newspaper business, this was not a big surprise. News sells. Big news sells bigger. It doesn’t matter if it’s good news or bad, it sells. At my old paper, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, some of the top-selling editions of all time came after bad news (9/11, the Challenger explosion) and good news (the Indianapolis Colts winning the Super Bowl, a local high school team capturing a state title). I’ll leave it to others – and history – to judge which category Obama’s election belongs in. What’s unusual about this is that in every instance, the actual news already was known far and wide. Television and radio traditionally had the upper hand in providing the consumer with results and analysis long before the first copy of a newspaper left the loading dock. The Internet has taken it to a new level. So, why do people still turn to newspapers on momentous occasions? “You can’t put a computer screen into a scrapbook,” one newspaper buyer told the Washington Post. Is that what newspapers have become? A souvenir? Did public interest in the historic election of an African-American to the highest office on the planet provide newspapers new life or just a temporary shot in the arm? “It’s not going to save the newspaper industry,” said John Morton, an industry analyst. Newspapers have been on a two decade trend of declining circulation, and print advertising revenue in 2007 was off 9.4 percent from the year before, the largest one-year drop in 50 years. One industry bright spot was online advertising, in which newspapers saw an 18.8 percent increase in 2007 over 2006. Like it or not, the Internet is where it’s at. The World Wide Web Consortium reports that Internet users have increased from 16 million globally in 1995 to almost 1.5 billion in 2008. And what are those users looking at? It’s not newspapers. It’s new media. According to one Web tracking service (Alexa), the top five Web sites in the United States are – Google, Yahoo, MySpace, YouTube and Facebook. The highest ranked newspaper Web site is the New York Times at No. 23. Only two other newspapers crack the Top 100 – Washington Post (53rd) and Los Angeles Times (77th). If you think network television is safe from this seismic shift in how people get information these days, think again. NBC.com comes in at No. 89 and ABC.com at No. 97. What’s this rambling dissertation have to do with outdoor communicators? We cater to a niche audience to begin with, so it’s unlikely any of us could develop a Web presence that’s capable of cracking the Alexa Top 1,000 let alone the Top 100. That doesn’t make our mission insignificant or a waste of time. Rather, it makes it even more important that we explore new ways to communicate the outdoor story before it becomes another souvenir. [print_link]

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