By Michael McLean , (Class of 2010)


Pictured: Philip Phelan

Elitism, atrophy, complacence and a resistance to new ideas: MediaCom's Strategy Director Philip Phelan didn't mince words when he pronounced the cause of the newspaper's deteriorating health at the MBS Marketing Association's event Who Killed the Newspaper? this month.

But although dire, the printed newspaper as a medium is not dead yet, and the situation may in fact be beneficial to marketers.

Across the globe, newspapers are failing, and soon LA, Boston, San Francisco or Miami will be the first major US city without a daily newspaper.

Australia is yet to experience the kind of carnage seen elsewhere in the world, but Phelan points out that our model is no more sustainable than America's. With steadily declining readerships and the cost of advertising continuing to rise, he suggests we're due for a correction.

What you're ending up with is the demand for an asset and the valuation of that asset stretching further and further apart. A bubble if you like.

The problem is that online readers are only half as profitable as paper readers. As a consequence, newspapers cut costs, leading to decreased quality. This annoys readers, forcing them to go elsewhere, and the cycle starts again.

So is there a remedy to the newspaper's lingering malady?

Phelan says there's a lot to learn from papers like Melbourne's Herald Sun. Although it too has seen a decline in numbers, it maintains a circulation more than twice that of The Age, and three times that of The Australian.

The reason, he argues, is populism.

Populism gets a bum rap these days, often being associated with idiot presidents and popular dictators. But populism re-discovered is a beautiful thing.

Populism is a believer in the rights, wisdom and virtues of the common people. Populists believe in organizing for popular empowerment - the capacities of the ordinary person to be an agent of their own life, a shaper of their community and the larger world.

Broadsheets in particular have resisted this path because of what he describes as an elitist view of what the news should be. But one has only to look at the monumental success of channel Ten's MasterChef to witness the true power of populist content to draw people back to a declining medium.

At its peak, the reality cooking show attracted an audience of over 4.1 million viewers, destroying the previous record of 3.4 million set five years ago by Ten's Australian Idol.

Phelan says that only by abandoning their elitist attitudes and embracing populism can newspapers begin to rejuvenate their withering numbers. After all, he says, the great strength of newspapers is in their ability to deliver new, surprising and entertaining ideas about the world.

It's critical for papers and the marketers that use them to remember serendipity - the surprise of learning something you weren't expecting to. Most advertising is about giving a consumer a new idea to think about and ideally do something with.

Another strength is the way readers regard their newspaper as a badge of identity. The genuine affinity many people feel for their newspaper makes the medium an excellent way to target a message, and papers still provide great opportunities for advertising, sponsorship and partnership.

Phelan says that from a media buying perspective there's never been a better time to consider newspaper advertising. He suggests that newspapers are more open to negotiation on cost, flexibility and partnership than ever before.

Exploit the hunger, he says. They need you more than you need them.

He also advises marketers to remember what newspapers are for and how readers use them. The papers lend themselves to the provision of comprehensive and persuasive information. People make time to read them.

Have lots of ideas in your communications - not bill-boards in print. That's what out-of-home is for.

And for those with the budget, he advises briefing the owner groups - not just the papers. Negotiating packages across press, digital and other media forms is more likely to get you an integrated response.

In the end Phelan - who describes himself as a newspaper lover but not a newspaper industry lover - is hopeful that newspapers will turn their plights around.

He says what's truly unique about the paper is it's tangible qualities.

Newspapers offer a physical experience that the internet does not. The touch, the feel, the weight, the size and even the smell of a paper are part of this experience. Ritual and routine are a key part of what keeps people reading newspapers.

He says the more the media owners can heighten and attune the physical experience of the paper to the reader's needs and wants, the greater the loyalty that can be attained.

It's a lesson that's probably just as pertinent to the marketers who advertise in them.

Watch the presentation online