Google Abandons Newspapers

Google is giving up their newspaper and magazine print ad sales business. Will google be abandoning their terrestrial radio ad sales experiment next?

When I spoke at Radio Ink Forecast last year one of the mantras of the executive leadership of the industry was "well at least we're not as bad off as the newspapers". Truly, as bad as things are for radio, (Clear Channel fired 10% of their work force yesterday) the newspaper industry is in worse shape. The question really boils down to whether radio in on a different road than newspapers or the same road, just not quite as far along.

Newspapers and radio have very similar problems, neither on of them have any real accountability of the efficacy of the ads they run for their advertisers. This is the fundamental mismatch between google and both the newspaper and radio industries. The reason people advertise using google adwords is because you know precisely how effective your campaign is. I wrote about this nearly two years ago.

Both newspapers and radio have another similar problem. Both are distribution channels that are fundamentally becoming obsolete (the newspaper guys understand this better than the radio guys, there are a lot of tower huggers in the radio business). Both are in process of switching to new distribution channels (newspapers faster than radio). Both have a big mismatch between the cost structures and business models of the old channel compared to the new. Both have been hurt by an abysmal understanding of their traffic (or in their parlance, their cume/circulation). Both have been hurt by expanded expectations of both their audience and their advertisers.

The newspaper industry understands that the "dead tree" distribution channel is coming to an end. They have done a good job of leveraging their core competence (writing and photography) to the web. They have lots of web traffic. Their problem is monetization.

To understand newspaper's monetization problem we have to look at why print newspaper ads are seen and online newspaper display ads seem invisible. The answers are mainly templates and search. How do you find something interesting to read in a print newspaper? You turn pages and scan headlines, when one catches your eye, you stop and read it. Interspersed in an irregular pattern are advertisements. Your eye is forced to see those ads because of the page layout. Since they're not always in the same location you scan the whole page because you can't predict where the ads will be and it becomes harder to train yourself to ignore them. The behavior is very different reading an online newspaper. First of all, you tend to use search to find what you're looking for. You're not leafing through pages and scanning headlines. But the real problem comes from the templated nature of web design. If the ad units is always in the same places on the page it becomes easy for your eye to ignore them. This is the problem that the newspaper industry needs to solve to become viable online.

The lesson there is monetization techniques do not always transfer from one channel to another. It's easy to end up with a meatball sundae.

In many ways the radio industry is not learning the lessons of the newspaper industry. They are far behind the newspapers in leveraging their core competence to a new distribution channel. Sadly many people in radio see their industry in a temporary downturn rather than a fundamental paradigm shift (kind of like the newspaper execs myopia 5-10 years ago). It is not merely an issue of radio moving to a narrowcast model but how to monetize the audience once they get there. Listeners are moving online and to mobile, but the types of ad units that are effective in a linear broadcasting environment are not effective in an interactive narrowcast world.

These are the challenges that radio must solve or they will end up hanging out with newsreels, town criers, and print newspapers in the dustbin of obsolete media.