Innovation by newspapers shows their determination to survive, but whatever happened to reporting?

chronperks
The San Francisco Chronicle’s website promotes membership perks that include event tickets and newsroom tours.

By JULIE REYNOLDS

Newspapers are doing some wild things these days to attract and keep readers.

The San Francisco Chronicle offers reader “memberships” that include a half-price deal on Zip cars. The LA Times gives free access to a Video Vault stocked with titles from around the country. And the Minneapolis Star Tribune runs photo workshops taught by staff, which in one case offered a chance to sit with the real media to shoot the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Few blame publishers for doing all they can to scratch up some revenue as their once-lucrative print business dwindles. At the same time, many journalists wonder if the creative strategies leave much room for news.

“Some of these operations still emphasize quality, and some of them don’t,” said Carl Hall, executive officer of the NewsGuild-CWA’s Pacific Media Workers local. “Newspapers need to be creative, but gimmicks aren’t the answer. If we stray too far from our core mission, we may wind up with nothing left to sell.”

The San Francisco Chronicle promotes its new memberships on local PBS station KQED, and the perks are similar to public broadcasting’s pledge drive freebies. The membership (which is actually included with home delivery and certain online subscriptions) includes “VIP access to the best museums, sporting events, concerts, festivals, food and wine events, lectures, tours and more.” There’s a half-price deal on Zipcar membership. This week, members lucky enough to get free tickets (the event is now billed as “sold out”) will tour the Chron’s newsroom and sit in on an editorial meeting.

videovault
The LA Times hopes to keep readers engaged with the Tribune Co.’s online video archives.

The Los Angeles Times is offering a free Video Vault newsletter, which links to content from the Times and other Tribune newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Orlando Sentinel, San Diego Union-Tribune and the Hartford Courant. The Video Vault will “give you something interesting to share with friends and talk about with co-workers in the halls,” the Times suggests.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune, under new ownership in 2014 by Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, has recently honed in on a money-making source that magazine publishers have relied on for years: special events.

Last month the Poynter Institute described a Star Tribune photo workshop taught by a staff photojournalist during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. “People paid to be part of it, submitted their best photos and a winner was chosen to sit with the media during the championships,” the Poynter story noted.

Even if such events only break even, marketers believe they promote reader “engagement” — that most magical of words in the media business.

Events, however, are only a small part of the hunt for a winning strategy at the Star Tribune, which “chose not to go digital-first at all costs. It’s audience-first… and that audience is still reading the newspaper,” managing editor Suki Dardarian told Poynter.

The core product

Considering newspapers’ tanking circulation numbers, some of these creative marketing moves make sense.

But whatever happened to the news? With widespread layoffs the norm — the “halving of America’s daily newsroom,” as media industry observer Ken Doctor calls it — local news coverage has shrunk. Under hedge fund ownership, news chains like Digital First Media and GateHouse Media are nearly destroying the very product subscribers (and, in turn, advertisers) come for.

Original reporting doesn’t seem to be a big part of the strategic mix, especially when profit-obsessed financiers take over. That’s too bad. As “fake news” runs wild online, news organizations might consider engaging a new generation of readers by reviving their one essential offering: Real reporting.

The logic behind slashing a newspaper’s essential content — while promoting events, video collections and special edition publications — is baffling.

Yes, we know that certain newspaper chains owned by vulture funds (like Digital First Media’s controller Alden Global Capital) are merely considered assets to be raided for their real estate before they’re expected to fail and written off as a loss — or sold to yet another hedge fund. Lather, rinse, repeat, until there’s nothing left.

In contrast, the innovative newspapers that are reinventing themselves through creative marketing and outreach seem to be implying they plan to be around awhile. And they’re even hinting that they care about their audiences.

That’s a very good thing.

But if it’s truly the case, they might also renew investment in their core product at the same time. Why not re-hire reporters to cover more local news, dig up more investigative dirt and tell more of the meaningful stories — through words, video and audio — that audiences crave?

Publishers could build a news business designed to grow by hiring good employees, treating them fairly, and publishing the very best news that money can buy. The array of new offerings, even some of the more gimmicky ones, could have a place, supporting, not replacing, the core mission.

It’s an outlandish idea, to be sure. But so is the idea that democracy can survive on free theater tickets and photo workshops.

Julie Reynolds is editor of DFMworkers.org.