Saving The News & Observer

The local newspaper is in trouble. Heck the New York Times is in trouble. Fewer people read the paper and newspaper websites are not good. I love our local paper, the Raleigh News and Observer. I look at the N&O piece about Poetryslam, the Scrabble-like magnetic word game I created a lifetime ago, daily since it hangs framed in my office. 

The News&Observer is in trouble because the web isn't the same as print. As obvious and clear as that statement is the TRUTH of it hasn't sunk in. The News&Observer is a content marketing mess. They haven't met and wouldn't know a keyword if it bit them on the butt. To say the N&O is a hot SEO mess is to be generous. Social? Not so much.

The N&O's problems stem from beating a dead horse - the editorial-centric newspaper model:

The Editorial-centric Newspaper Model assumed local news exclusivity and the old model drank from the profitable trough of classified ads and the local share of national ad buys (Sunday Free Standing Inserts with coupons for example). There was so much exclusivity for so long in so many ways local newspapers never saw the web tsunami.

Saving The News&Observer

There is a supreme irony only Internet marketers fully appreciate. Most Internet marketers work with teams that rarely exceed ten people. They may be managing tens of millions in sales and profits, but Internet marketing teams are kept half starving.

Newspapers by comparison have an ARMY of exactly the talent any great website needs:

  • Writers.

  • Graphic Artists.

  • Photographers.

  • Editors. 

The irony of one group starving while making millions while another has abundant resources and is losing millions can't be overstated.


Internet marketers fight a daily battle in a red ocean of competition. Internet marketing teams have NEVER lived when competition wasn't fierce. Now online marketing competition has moved form "fierce" to "savage". Internet marketing "time" only has one direction - FASTER.

If a content marketing team was trained on exclusivity and assues they are the top dog the team becomes fodder for aggressive Internet and mobile marketers. The good news is NO ONE has more than 5 minutes lead online ever. Internet marketing always happens NOW. The News&Observer can be saved.

News&Observer vs. WRAL

The N&O faces tough competition from one of the best (if not the best) local CBS affiliates in America. The Goodman family's WRAL is a brilliantly executed content marketing play on TV and the web. WRAL owns Raleigh's web daily web traffic and with their video expertise may always have a lead:

One thing any Internet marketer learns early and usually the hard way is not to face off to the death on anything. Remember we are thinking strategically about how to save the News&Observer. WRAL's genius and excellence doesn't eliminate our ability to save the N&O. 

The most important information on this analysis is WRAL creates inbound links 2x as fast as the N&O. The News&Observer's powerful achieve of over 4M webpages in Google are so much less efficient than their main competitor their breadth can become a penalty.

In a post Panda and Penguin Google world more efficient wins the day. As we begin to create a prescription for the N&O MORE of the same is out of the question. More of the same would just produce a penalty and HURT not SAVE the N&O.

N&O Solution #1: Let Editorial-Centric Model Go

I worked briefly for the Durham Herald-Sun when Janet McKean and I moved to North Carolina in 1993. One day and the Herald-Sun I suggested sales work with editorial to create content our advertisers would want to buy. Amazed I lived through the stoning that happened next.

Newspaper editors were powerful people. They molded opinion and helped a thousand ships sail. Then their local exclusivity disappeared, content started coming in over the side of the canoe from all directions and the content marketing tsunami swamped the editorial-centric business model.

There will always be a role for intelligent writers and editors to share beliefs, but those beliefs will be voices in a crowd. No one needs a printing press to be heard, so the old editorial-centric model must be replaced by small "e" editorial. 

N&O Solution #2: Strategic Content Partners

Raleigh is rich in Universities (Duke, UNC, NC State) and the startups they bring. The News&Observer should harness the incredible energy, intelligence and cutting edge brillance right in their backyard. Partner with Chris Heivly's Triangle Startup Factory. Create unique content. Write about, photograph and video what's COOL and happening NOW in startup land.

By partnering with our Y-Combinator startup school the N&O artfully kills 2 birds with a single stone - they pull in cool, cutting edge technology starutps AND universities. The N&O should sponsor a college startup competition to further cement the association.

Once a few of these changes begin to take effect the N&O could do the ultimate contest - ask for help with the core issue of how to save the N&O. Don't make that contest about money since most of the Internet marketers I know have plenty of money. Make the Save The N&O, Save The World contest about saving the world one local newspaper at a time.

Think this "social not money" approach is nuts? Red Drive by Daniel Pink and note how monetary awards can reduce response with intrinsically motivated people.

N&O Solution #3: GAMIFY

Regular ScentTrail Marketing readers knew I was headed to contests and gamification. I had an interview with Laura Finaldi in the N&O yesterday (probably my last after this post :) and was amazed at how little social support most N&O content receives.

Stupid is as stupid does and social is as social does. The N&O's look and feel says, "We don't care what you think, comment upon or care about very much". Left over from the editorial-centric model the non-social friendly stance is committing a very slow online content marketing suicide.

There is ART and SCIENCE in how tools like Twitter, Facebook and G+ should be used. Currently the N&O understands little of social media marketing's ART or SCIENCE.

One social marketing truth all IMers should understand is simple - IF YOU DON'T BELIEVE, NEITHER WILL ANYONE ELSE. Sorry about screaming in all caps, but the N&O's nonverbal communication is so CLEAR and unmistakable it leaches out of every webpage pore from design to social shares.

The nonverbal message is YOU must listen to US not the other way around. 

Not so much as it turns out. Everything on the N&O needs to become part of a game eventually, but starting with a regular contest and curating content from comments and social shares (grabbing supporters tweets and posts like this) would be a great start. When in doubt create a simple contest - Write for the N&O For A Day or If You Owned The N&O What 3 Changes Would You Make etc.

Don't get hung up in the WHAT. 

Another BIG difference between newspapers and Internet marketers is working in the bazaar not painting the Sistine Chapel. My Internet marketing team would do some things JUST BECAUSE. Bet the N&O never does anything without 5 reasons.

Sometimes we were testing an idea. Other times we did things, "Even if they are the wrong things" because the cost of doing something (even the wrong thing) is lower than costs associated with doing nothing. Amazing at how many people don't understand that simple elegant Internet marketing truth.

Play, test and learn as fast as you can and stop painting the Sistine Chapel.

The slow response / curation / creation cycle is left over from an Editorial-centric model. When you think everything you print is genius you print less. I'm here to tell you everything printed, even back in the day, wasn't genius so why SLOW DOWN your web process waiting on Godot?

Speed up and make more mistakes online than you would have been comfortable making in print (just the nature of the new game). Speed up AND include others. User Generated Content is paltry at best on today's N&O. Visitors know when a website cares about what they think. Today the News& doesn't care. Fixing that attitude fixes a lot of everything else :).

N&O Solution #4: Causes, Crowds and Cash

The Internet Marketing Triptych (published today on Atlantic BT's blog) suggests every online marketer would be wise to adopt a great cause consistent with their brand, harness the power of crowds via crowdfunding and create a store to learn things about Internet marketing only stores teach.

The N&O should align with a cause, create a crowdfunding engine and develop a store (where all the dirty packing and shipping can be done by others if needed). Think like a PLATFORM and allow OPC (Other People's Content) on Reward contributors and care about UGC.

Create a Kickstarter to support the startup partnership idea. Most Kicktarter funded projects are in music, film, and technology. Since we have a fair amount of world class STUFF in all three of those areas create a crowdfunding platform and make serendipitous awards. Don't limit crowdfunding to startup ideas. Come on board with and let's cure cancer.

Adding crowdfunding and stores "cools up" the N&O fast, costs little and solves the inbound link problem overnight (currently N&O isn't efficient in generating inbound links).


There are SMART people working at the N&O who may have thought of these ideas, but bet I am one of the FEW who has actually made $30M online. Granted I ran a B2C website not a content play, but the distance between B2C and B2B isn't as great as most imagine.

Can the N&O be saved?

Absolutely. Will the N&O be saved? Hope so since it would be missed. Missed because the more the web makes it possible to shrink time and space the more LOCAL and HYPER LOCAL matter. We can't lose touch of each other or how we are connected to the greater whole of "our town". It would be easy to gain the world and lose ourselves.

Who cares why or how the N&O and most local papers got to a point where they need saving, but saving is needed. Since all Internet marketing happens NOW and no one is ever more than five minutes ahead the N&O can be an online power. 

I believe that last sentence so much I will NEVER charge for consulting services to the N&O.

I will trade 13 years and $30M in web marketing expertise FREE and the N&O's desire to help cure cancer. Easy to make an offer so unlikely to be requested, but life is about more than money. To prove my last point about life being about more than money I extend the offer to ANY local newspaper who wants to become an online power. I bet I could marshal similar promises from some very smart Internet marketing friends too should the unlikely call ever come.

Can we save the N&O? Yes. Will we save the N&O? Let's hope so :). M

You In?

Here are helpful links so you know I'm not crazy, just in a hurry :).

Martin W. Smith, Director Marketing Atlantic BT

Martin Marty Smith on Facebook

Martin Marty Smith on Linkedin

Martin W. Smith on G+


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