NAA to newspapers: advertise this

We’re long past the writing-on-the-wall stage for newspapers and advertising, it seems — the recent report from the Newspaper Association of America is more like a billboard, with one of those huge searchlight things they use for movie premieres and the opening of new car dealerships. And what it says is (pardon my French): You guys are totally screwed. Advertising has been declining for the past few years or so, but now the NAA is talking about the biggest decline since the association started keeping data — bigger than after September 11, 2001.

Some of that (full data here) is undoubtedly a result of the U.S. economic situation, which has everyone from banks to car dealers pulling back the reins and spending less. But the uncomfortable reality is that advertising in newspapers is declining for a bunch of other reasons as well, including the fact that newspapers appeal primarily to an aging population. At a recent meeting at one newspaper, an editor said that she felt a piece on hip-replacement surgery should be played more prominently because “that’s our core demographic.” Sad, but true.

But an even more important reason why paper ads are declining is that their cost-to-value ratio is way out of whack with what advertisers can get elsewhere, particularly the Internet. And it’s not just decimating the classified business. Even traditional newspaper ads are difficult (if not impossible) to measure. Online ads can not only be targeted more specifically, they can also be tracked a dozen ways, and it quickly becomes obvious which ones are working — plus they are an order of magnitude cheaper than the paper version.

The NAA’s press release, of course, focuses on the much more positive news that online advertising for newspapers continues to grow at double-digit rates — but it still only accounted for revenue of $3.2-billion, compared with overall print revenue of more than $42-billion. It’s going to have to start growing a heck of a lot faster than that before it even starts to make a dent in the decline of print advertising. Update: Chris “Long Tail” Anderson doesn’t think it’s all that bad if you look at it properly.

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