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Newspapers Fight Back Online

When was the last time you turned the pages of a newspaper? Yeah, thought so. The news industry has been clobbered by 1) staggering losses of auto, jobs and real estate classifieds to online services; 2) changing media consumption habits of consumers, who are truly in control of how, when and in what form they want their news; and 3) the cost of producing and distributing paper products whose content is readily available everywhere online.

Yet an odd sense of confidence pervaded the halls of the Mandalay Bay convention center in Las Vegas last week, where 4,000 or so survivors rallied at the Newspaper Association of America's Marketing Conference. Upper lips stiffened, they shouted figuratively for three days to one another, "We're fed up, and we're not going to take it any more!"

The reason for the confidence?

Newspapers, many of them online since 1994, have seen their online operations grow, become profitable, and lead the innovation parade as the proverbial tail wags the dog. The merging of print and digital newsrooms and operations has turned from trickle to flood over the last five years, and print ad sellers are learning to cooperate and sell alongside their digital brethren. In fact, The New York Times recently celebrated the first anniversary of the restructuring of their sales team into sellers of both print and online products.

Will online save newspapers? Hard to say with any assurance, but it seems very clear that the odds improve as newspapers get back to what they do best: local. Local events, high school football scores, notes of the county board meeting. Don't try to be The New York Times-- even if you're owned by them, as is the Boston Globe, which last week closed down its foreign bureaus. We don't need local papers for national or global news. We need local papers to help us connect with each other in our hometowns. And nothing says "connecting" like online.

That's why the big smiles were on the faces of what the NAA still calls the "New Media" people in attendance. And what a transformation they're making in places like Bakersfield and Oklahoma City, Pittsburgh and Spokane, turning newspapers on their heads and putting the power to publish in the hands of the people. The latest shots across the bow of journalism have convinced media companies, finally, that the time is over for all of these internet upstarts to eat our lunch.

Why is Google selling newspaper ads? What is Yahoo! doing with HotJobs and the newspaper company "Amigos?" How is it that Wikia -- the new "commercial Wikipedia" -- was able to sprout 162 "collaborative local newspapers" around the globe simply by making Wiki tools available for free?

It's all about where you live. It's all about local.

After years of agonizing over colossal failures from Microsoft Sidewalk to the New Century Network consortium; after conceding one ad category after another to the online Monsters and Autobytels; after fighting copyright wars with blogs and channel battles among themselves, perhaps, at last, the newspaper industry is ready to deal head on with the fact that it's now or never for them to put their energy into winning the local war. To do it, they'll put their great strengths into play with the great strengths of others. The excitement of Yahoo's Amigos is palpable. "This is going to be big," a senior executive from [one] Amigo told me, "this is going to be enormous for us."

Newspaper companies must learn to use more wisely the trust their readers still have in them, their brands and their values. They need to rebuild relationships torn away from them by online opportunists. They'll do this by showing the true value of the communities they already have built where people want to communicate among themselves about common concerns. News publishers, it's time to stop whining and start winning.

There's a new newspaper industry coming, that's for sure. Some of it may actually be evident on paper. But the best part awaits us online.

Bennett Zucker is vice president of the Publisher Media Exchange (PMX) for Right Media, Inc. .

Bennett Zucker is vice president of the Publisher Media Exchange (PMX) for Right Media, Inc. Bennett has been involved in interactive media and technology since the early 1990s, following a successful career in publishing. Prior to joining aCerno,...

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