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Newspapers Suffer from Mass-Market Myopia

According to MarketWatch, Tribune Co., New York Times Co. and Dow Jones & Co. are among the newspaper publishers expected to report a decline in third-quarter earnings due to ongoing weakness across several key advertising categories.

Ad sales are lackluster at many U.S. newspapers, as advertisers look at dropping circulation numbers and assume that they won't reach as many of the consumers they desire through print newspapers. Circulation is being affected by a migration of readers to the Web, as well as the impact of the Do Not Call Registry, which has all but taken away one of the industry's prime methods to recruit new subscribers.

This week, Gannett Co. and Media General Inc. reported disappointing third-quarter results, and September results at the newspapers offered little hope for improvement in the fourth quarter. On Tuesday, E.W. Scripps Co. announces quarterly results. The newspaper publisher has fared better than many of its peers because its cable networks, including Food Network and HGTV, have found significant 'niche audiences' that have kept ratings and ad sales strong.

Scripps cable network executives apparently know something about what their targeted audience needs, wants, and desires. Does any major-market newspaper have that same perspective, or anything that's even close? It's unlikely, because the notion of 'anonymous consumers' has always been at the heart of a traditional newspaper's 19th century mass-market thinking. The editorial elite choose what is deemed newsworthy, and then the publication is fed to the 'common people' within the populace.

In hindsight, Knight Ridder was probably wise to sell its assets while there were still buyers. After all is said and done, who will acquire Gannett or Media General when their time has come? Regardless, perhaps what the leadership of the newspaper industry really needs now is foresight and imagination, not hindsight and regret.

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