Search Engines Killed The Newspaper Star….

OK, so it’s hard to sing those words to the Buggles tune, but I think I made my point anyway. Great article by David Berkowitz in MediaPost’s Search Insider yesterday. He attended a panel of journalists and editors who reportedly spent much of their time lamenting the death of newspapers (and, by association, magazines) at the hands of Google and Yahoo. I love these articles probably more than many SEM’ers do – I worked at a newspaper for over 6 years, and am currently doing SEM for a magazine subscription agency, both of which give me a unique perspective on a “dying” industry and an emerging one, all at the same time.

Here’s my favorite quote from the article: “[Search engines] might be more directly winning over classified advertisers, but the erosion shows that newspapers have not been able to adapt to a changing media landscape since LBJ was president, so either finger consumers for tormenting newspapers with the death by a thousand cuts, or consider the damage self-inflicted.” Hear hear. Indeed, search is the new classified section, to a great extent. In fact, my experience in classified newspaper advertising is what got me this SEM gig – while not exactly the same thing, there are many parallels, especially when it comes to hunting down relevant keywords and writing really short, yet clear and concise, ad copy. One look at my local newspaper’s classified ad section tells me that they’re getting hammered by the online job search providers. 10 years ago, the Sunday Jobs section easily ran 12 to 16 pages every week, often more. Now, I’ve seen *many* weeks of 6 to 8 page sections, with half-page house ads filling up space. Yikes. And how has the newspaper reacted to this decline? By raising their classified rates to the point that Mom and Pop Storeowner can’t afford to advertise their job openings in the local paper any more. It’s a vicious downward spiral that’s been happening ever since I started at the newspaper in 1989 – “volume’s down? We better up our ad rates.”

Magazines are running into a similar problem. Circulation and ad revenues are down, so what do they do? Turn a blind eye to rogue magazine agents who sell bundles of 5 subscriptions on eBay for $0.99, that’s what. Legit agents have a hard time – no, an impossible time – competing with this type of price-cutting, even if it’s not “authorized” by the publishers. Legit agents trying to sell subscriptions via search are being penalized by publishers trying in vain to shut down the rogue agents by submitting trademark restriction letters to Google, or, worse yet, deauthorizing all online agent sales. Problem is, that only stops the good agents – the rogues keep on taking money for subs that they either don’t fulfill, or falsify records to fulfill.

In both cases, the print media have themselves to blame. Instead of embracing technology, they’re running around like Chicken Little. Instead of reinventing themselves to better fit the market, they’re pointing fingers and crying foul (or “fowl”). Mr. Berkowitz makes some great suggestions as to how the print folks can use search to their advantage. I challenge them to actually do it.

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