An early autopsy of the newspaper industry

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The newspaper business is slowly dying, but it didn’t have to be this way.

The Poynter Institute reports that 1,300 more newspaper jobs disappeared in the United States in 2013.

In what is surely a most cruel form of irony, the people responsible for running the newspaper business – the suits, the MBAs, the publishers – could have made the decisions to at least soften the decline of the industry if not prevent it, but they failed miserably.

Supposedly, they had all that business savvy, but they proved that they didn’t. They supposedly had the knowledge to read the changing business landscape and the authority to make the decisions to adjust; they did neither well enough to make a difference.

Here’s something you need to know about newspapers. They were never really a challenging business during their prime. In many communities and cities, they were a licence to print money – especially if it was a one-newspaper market. Classified advertising was the huge cash cow for many newspapers and there was also revenue from display advertising that pushed the percentage of revenue from non-subscription sources to upwards of 75 to 80 per cent.

Think about that. The people who got the newspapers at their doorstep paid for 25 per cent of the cost of collecting that news, printing it on newsprint, and delivering the bundled-up dead trees to the homes of subscribers.

Then, along comes a new medium called the Internet that can deliver the news to readers for a pittance. You still need to pay reporters, photographers, designers, and people to upload the news to a website, but you eliminate some huge cost centres. You don’t need to buy newsprint, you don’t need to buy expensive printing presses, or pay the salaries of people to print it and deliver it.

Comparatively, it’s a cheaper, more environmentally friendly way of delivering news to readers. It offered the promise of huge savings if the new medium was embraced, but the industry timidly put one toe in the water instead and continued printing newspapers while paying lip-service to their websites.

Then came the complaints that the Internet wasn’t working for them because they had to give content away because people wouldn’t pay for it. During this time sites like Craigslist and Kijiji siphoned classified ad revenue. Instead of copying their business model to keep those eyeballs on newspaper websites, they continued to charge for classified ads and drove more and more classified ad users to these free websites.

Like anything that has gone extinct, the companies that run newspapers failed to evolve.

If the companies that run newspapers want to exist — and continue delivering news — after the great demographic bubble of the baby boom passes on, they’ll need to get their heads out of their wazoos and stop printing news on dead trees.

Trashing the litterbugs

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My daughter was only about four years old when we were out at a park and she noticed some litter on the ground.

“Oh, look,” she said. “Somebody forgot their garbage.”

We produce way more than our share of garbage in North America that the least we can do of it is properly dispose of it. When I was a kid, we were taught that littering was bad. Then, we tried to add another layer of responsibility on top of that and it seems like the North American brain short-circuited.

“Recycle and dispose of my garbage? But I’ve got TV shows to watch,” I imagine the modern-day neanderthal saying.

We live in a society with too many lazy slobs and not enough people who care. The evidence is overwhelming. Yesterday, my son took part in “Clean up to win,” a neighbourhood clean-up that coincides with the end of Tim Hortons’ Roll Up the Rim to Win contest. In about three hours, one person picked up more than 500 empty cups that had been discarded in Spryfield. He was not alone, many others from the Adventure Earth Centre in Halifax, who are part of HEAT (Helping the Earth by Acting Together) are participating in the clean-up. Tonight, those who participate get to enter their name into a draw for prizes. To be fair, there was some other garbage from a local McDonald’s, but about two-thirds of it originated from Tim Hortons.

This is the kind of contest we need. One that helps prevent litter and waste, rather than causing it.

Happy Earth Day, everyone.

Ignore the branding: These are the oranges you’re looking for

Navel Oranges

As a teenager, I worked for a few years at a produce store in Montreal and learned a great deal about fruits and vegetables from my boss, Harvey Levy, who loved to educate his employees.

One day, we got a shipment of navel oranges and they were delicious. Harvey, as he often did, sampled them before buying a few hundred cases of the juicy, seedless citrus fruit that is popular with consumers.

He knew it was good value – a better value than the navel oranges sold by Sunkist which relied on branding to pump up its price and reputation. Yes, pilgrims, Sunkist is not a type of orange, it’s merely one of many companies that grows and sells navel oranges.

Harvey knew that some customers would be skeptical about the oranges because they didn’t have the Sunkist stamp, so he asked us to cut up a bunch of them and offer them as samples.

For many people, tasting was believing and they happily bought the oranges which were on sale. They, like me, learned a valuable, lesson about oranges and branding.

Some people, narrow-mindedly refused to even try a free sample, even though these oranges tasted great and offered all the same health benefits of the name-brand orange.

“I only eat Sunkist oranges,” some said.

After I finish shaking my head, I pity people like that.

Police brutality in Russia

Pussy Riot members whipped by police

I have not watched much of the Olympics. Partly, it’s a lack of interest but mostly it’s because I am not a TV watcher. If the Olympics did not happen, the world would carry on. As much as I admire the Olympic ideals, the event has strayed a tidy step from its roots.

That said, I don’t think anyone who takes an interest in the Olympics or does anything less than calling for a boycott of the Olympics can be so summarily categorized as a supporter of the Russian regime. You can enjoy and appreciate the Olympics while not supporting the behaviour we see in the video (see link above.) Polemics rarely settle issues and often start arguments.

The Olympics have brought a lot of attention on Russia. This plague of human rights abuses did not start in the run-up to the Olympics — it has been going on for years. The Olympics have shone a bright light of scrutiny on Russia. The picture is ugly to be sure, but awareness is the first step to a cure. The remedy will take a long time and I hope the suffering will be mitigated by some more progressive thinking.

Change — whenever it happens — would quite likely have taken much longer without the Olympics. For inspiration, look to South Africa. I remember thinking that Apartheid would never end there. With scrutiny and pressure from the international community, the seemingly impossible happened.

I admire the bravery of the protestors in Russia. Their courage is beyond compare.

How to avoid car-pedestrian accidents

We here at the Department of Common Sense are alarmed at the high number of car-pedestrian accidents in Halifax.

There is a lot of finger-pointing and, if blame were to be meted out, it would be assigned equally as both motorists and pedestrians are to blame. The finger-pointing is counter-productive, though, so we think it’s best to focus on solutions.

To my fellow pedestrians: When you’re lying in a hospital bed, it doesn’t make you feel any better to have been right that you had the right of way. I walk more than I drive, but when I walk, I always make sure that I have made eye contact with the driver and that I see a noticeable slowing down before I cross. There have been many times that this has made me a spectator to an inattentive motorist zooming in front of me, and, while it is frustrating, it is painless.

On the rare occasion that I drive, I always make an effort to look at the pedestrian and make a gesture to let them know that I’ve seen them. To drivers: stay off your cellphone, don’t put makeup on in the car, and for God’s sake keep your dogs off your lap. You’re driving a big hunk of metal and your job is to it safely. There are pedestrians out and about. Keep an eye out for them.

In 29 years of driving and 40 years as a pedestrian, this simple technique has prevented car-pedestrian accidents involving yours truly. (Knock on wood)

This is a public service message from the Department of Common Sense.

Branding Halifax: not exactly as advertised

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage is inviting citizens of Halifax Regional Municipality to define our city. It’s very kind of him to attempt to engage citizens, but I fear the focus on words – not actions – might prevent us from achieving the stated goal: branding Halifax.

With the help of a marketing company, there is a social media campaign that is prompting people to put on their thinking tuques and come up with a new slogan for the city. In many respects though, it’s like asking Rumpelstiltskin to turn straw into gold instead of loading up your rucksack and heading for the hills to pan for gold.

Attempting to conjure up a brand through a clever marketing campaign might generate buzz, but I doubt it will lead to a true, lasting brand. You forge a brand by consistently acting a certain way over time.

With apologies to Dr. Seuss, a brand is sort of like Christmas.

“It comes without packages, boxes or bags!”

“Maybe branding doesn’t come from a store.”

“Maybe branding … perhaps … means a little bit more!”

A public relations firm can help promote a brand, but in HRM’s case, defining it is up to the government and the citizenry. The government can shape a brand by the way it governs and citizens can do so by the way we live.

If you want to define Halifax, don’t focus on the witty bon mots and pithy slogans – especially if they are hollow words.

If you must have a slogan, make them hallowed words and act accordingly: smartly, openly, honestly and consistently.