The Rocky Mountain News recently won an award for overall excellence from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) in the category of large circulation newspapers. Unfortunately, the award will ring a bit hollow for the Rocky Mountain News, as the newspaper ceased operations permanently on February 27, just a bit short of its 150th anniversary.

This is an award winning newspaper with a lot of fans and a long history, unable to find a buyer. The writers of the Rocky are trying to get enough financial support from the public to continue operations, launching the site www.indenvertimes.com. The baseball writers who cover the Colorado Rockies (my favorite team) have launched their own site, www.insidetherockies.com. I like what is being done on these sites – lots of good ideas.

The plight of the Rocky is hardly unique. A number of large newspapers are in bad financial shape. Is this merely a temporary down turn due to the poor economy, or is the printed newspaper becoming the buggy whip of the 21st century?

I hate to say it, but it may be the latter.

When newspapers first became popular, they were the only way that most people could receive the news. They had a virtual monopoly on news.

The radio came along, and then the television. They provided breaking news in a timelier manner than the newspapers, but the newspapers still had a very distinct advantage. The consumer could decide when they wanted to read the news in a newspaper, whereas the radio and TV stations dictated the time of their news.

The advent of the internet was concerning to the print media, but for a while, there was relatively limited information on the internet and there were large portions of the population who did not have access.

Today, the internet has incredible coverage of almost every topics, and nearly everyone has access, often 24 X 7 access, and sometimes on their cell phone. With the popularity of WiFi, people can surf news websites while eating in a restaurant. I have not yet done this – I actually grab a physical newspaper if I am going to ready while I eat – but I have seen numerous examples of “surf and turf”.

Advertisers have been following consumers and have also flocked to the internet. In the early days, only the big sites had advertisers. Even sites with a decent following (such as my Alabama site) didn’t have advertisers because the operators were unable to navigate the hoops necessary to procure advertising.

Times have changed. Today, people will jump through the hoops for you. This little blog has advertisers (most notably, Tyson Chicken seems to pop up a lot). What did I do to see this up? Not much. I clicked a few buttons. Google (which owns blogger.com) finds advertisers via their AdSense network (they take a portion of the revenue, of course). The advertisers can bid on certain key words, and in the future they will be able to target people based on their browsing histories (see the “privacy” box on the right side of the screen if you have concerns about this).

Today’s internet advertisers can even target their ads for particular times of the day. I see the Tyson ads – on my blog and other places around the internet – very often during prime eating hours. This makes a lot of sense. Advertising a food product at 5 PM makes a lot more sense than advertising it at 10 PM. Also, most of the ads are on a “pay per click” basis, meaning that advertisers don’t pay a penny unless someone actually clicks on the ad and goes to the advertiser’s web site.

Given these factors, how can newspapers succeed? First of all, keep the customers you have. Until recently, my wife and I subscribed to a local newspaper. However, the carrier was horrible with his aim, only rarely delivering the newspaper to the doorstep. We made repeated calls to the newspaper, but the problem never went away. Finally, we got annoyed with constantly digging through the bushes to find the newspaper and canceled it. We felt that the newspaper was completely ignoring our complaints; thus we felt that it was only fair that we completely ignore the existence of their product.

Beyond avoiding alienating customers, what can the newspapers do? I’m not an expert on the industry, but this is what I see from the point of The Soap Boxers:

First and foremost, you must have an online presence of some sort. If people can’t find news stories on your web site, you’ll be perceived as a dinosaur.

You should focus a large amount of effort on the coverage of local stories. People aren’t going to grab your paper to see your version of the latest national story. There are hundreds of place where they can find this information online. Coverage of local news and local sports is different, though – people have a limited number of sources for this information.

Finally, use teasers. Perhaps you could have a three part biography of a local hero. The first part would be available online, but the rest would only be available in the print edition.

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Kosmo is the founder of The Soap Boxers and writes on a variety of topics. Many of his short stories have been collected into Kindle books.

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