By Pete Van Baalen
Fort Wayne Newspapers

It started with a post on Facebook from parody news source The Onion.

The humor was evident in the headline, Report: Majority of Newspapers Now Purchased by Kidnappers to Prove Date.

It was a good-natured poke that has made me laugh for years.

And newspapers weren’t the only media targeted in the post. The Onion said that magazines still have purpose: “Kidnappers still find them useful for making cut-and-paste ransom letters and death threats.”

A few days after seeing that on Facebook, I was riding along with a sales rep who was struggling to defend the newspaper industry’s audience decline.

It didn’t take long to realize that the rep had bought into the negative headlines and didn’t have enough data to help show the power of the printed word. And that power goes well beyond just proving the date for kidnappers!

I’m not ignoring some alarming trends. As an industry, we have some work ahead of us as things continue to fragment and change.

Here are some real concerns the media world is facing:

• Youth are consuming less traditional media.

• Media outlet owners are worried about the move to digital.

• Online consumption of content has doubled since 2010.

The irony of those three headlines is that they were not for the newspaper industry.

In order, those articles were from broadcast TV, cable TV and radio.

The concerns we face are shared by other media platforms, but my sense is we are defeated reading our own headlines instead of trying to tell our good story and fight the good fight.

The best digital content on the web comes from legitimate news organizations.

Our newsrooms and our content is our frontline defense for the transition to digital.

The online audience we have is the envy of the TV, cable and radio industries.

During my ride-along with the sales rep, we discussed readership of the print product.

She commented that our numbers had dropped over the previous six months.

I asked her what that number was, and she was vague. She knew the distribution number and stated that as readership. But there is a big difference.

There has been debate on how many readers a newspaper has per copy.

The pass-around number has varied during my career from 1.9 readers to as high as 3.2 depending on the study you choose to use.

For me, I’ve always used 2.5 readers per copy.

An entry on the Intersect Media blog quotes a Newspaper Association of America phone survey from 2013 that put the readership at 2.48 people per copy.

There are some newspapers that are higher and some lower, but using 2.5 is still a reasonable number to quote when talking about total audience.

The key is to put that math to work in your market.

While the audience has changed and declined in print, the total print audience most newspapers delivers is still the biggest and best audience in the market.

Your total audience versus the local radio station? Your total audience versus the best rated broadcast or cable channel?

The newspaper audience is a slam-dunk winner nearly every time.

Many newspapers are not telling this great story.

And you know what? The story gets even better.

Pew Research Center has determined that 56 percent of a newspaper’s audience consumes it exclusively in print.

Thus the large numbers of unique visitors to your website expands your audience even more with unduplicated reach.

Our concerns for the industry cannot be ignored, and I’m not suggesting they should be.

But there are still some great stories to be told in all of our markets.

Better training of what our audience is locally versus our competitors is a good place to start.

Pete Van Baalen, general manager for Fort Wayne Newspapers, is a member of the HSPA board of directors and president of Indiana Newspaper Advertising Executives Association.

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