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Google This

The newspaper industry isn't dead



The last time I wrote in this space was back in March. In newspaper years, that equals about 13 human years. A week used to be a week, and once a week we’d print a newspaper and set it out on the streets, waiting for that great lab experiment to begin: trying to find out what made our readers tick and what would make them tick on over to a newsrack and pick up a copy. Every week, we’d track our data, but it was nearly always two weeks old. Ahh, those were the days.

Data are called metrics today, by the way. We deal in metrics now. And analytics. We get some of that information in real time from Google, which we don’t trust and was a mere novelty 13 years ago. It goes like this: A writer posts a blog online and later checks Google Analytics to see how many people read (or opened, or viewed or whatever) that story. Say that occurred on a Tuesday, and it was found that a huge number of persons viewed that blog at 3 p.m. The writer has an “aha” moment and blogs at exactly the same time the following Tuesday about the same topic, only to find that not only did no one view it at 3 p.m., but few people viewed it—period.

And the online chase begins.

Pre-Google, we used to wonder why a coffee shop would move a ton of papers one week, but not so many the next. When that happened, we’d blame the cover story, or attribute it to a holiday or the weather. We’d scratch our heads and be done with it. By the time we figured it out (perhaps the rack had been moved), we’d become equally consumed by a similar issue at the hot-dog palace. Now, with all these fancy Google tools, we get to see the same thing and experience the same confusion, with one glaring downside: Google serves neither coffee nor hot dogs. Try talking to Google sometime.

Measuring print readers—and, now, online users—continues to be less art and science and more dartboard. It’s just that today’s dartboard is a better one. Thanks to the database miracle, nearly everyone online can track just about everything else online. It used to be that we’d be satisfied to know we’d moved 100 papers in only a couple of days at Salt Lake Roasting Company. Just by looking around at who was drinking coffee there, we knew it was a great demographic group to boast about as readers of our newspaper.

Today, everyone is consumed by trying to figure out what those readers and users have in their coffee mug. Somebody, somewhere, thinks it’s really cool to know that everyday at 8:23 a.m., Veronica parks her Audi 6000, pays the parking meter on a nearly tapped-out credit card, then walks to the coffee shop (where her debit card is declined) but still leaves with her usual double cappuccino and a chocolate-chip cookie, paying with a company credit card. In no time, that “somebody” is trying to figure out how to make a buck off Veronica. She’ll get an e-mail from a coffee catalog, telling her all about a newfangled home cappuccino maker. She’ll be driving across town and her phone will buzz, letting her know she just passed a cookie factory. Credit-card companies will sell her on more credit, and next time she opens Facebook (the picture of her standing by her new car is just one way “they” know she has an Audi), she’ll see ads streaming down the side of her page tempting her to buy a BMW.

Some people like this kind of stuff. I don’t. Yet I also know that’s the new reality of our business—we’re not just a newspaper anymore. Today, we sell everything from print to peanuts, and it’s a blessing that folks will still read our important stories, in print or online.

I’ve returned to publishing City Weekly. Our publisher of 10 years, Jim Rizzi, has left our company. We bid him a high-five as he heads to a new adventure somewhere in California. Jim was at the helm when most of the tech-innovation onslaught struck the newspaper industry. I was here, too, just next door, helping to grow two new “newspaper savior” tech innovations you will soon hear more about. And from there, I came to far different conclusions about the state of newspapers than did those whiners over at MediaOne (the operating company for Salt Lake City’s daily newspapers, The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News). I believe in them, for instance.

If they write one more obit about the newspaper industry, I’ll puke. If you want to know what’s going on in Greece and the Eurozone, look no further than The Salt Lake Tribune, which is the European austerity plan in a nutshell. Even after pay cuts, hiring freezes and previous staff cuts to help repay huge loans, nine more persons were laid off last week at the Trib. It’s about debt, not lost readers, and the foxes in the henhouse are counting down their eggs until the debt is repaid and there are no personnel around to pay to produce their far-less-expensive online products. Merkel. Singleton. Same person to me. Might you agree, Glen Warchol?

I’m not so naive to think we may never face cutbacks, but I won’t cave in to the idea that all newspapers are dead just because the dailies suck. They sucked pre-Google, and Google Analytics can’t save them. We’re not dead. In the immortal words of Mark Twain, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Twitter: @JohnSaltas