Lessons from Motor City

What do the newspaper industry and the automotive industry have in common?

A lot, apparently.

There's the obvious fact that both industries have taken a huge hit in the recent recession. Plus, the fact that both have been the unfortunate subjects of gloom & doom "the end is near" predictions.

But on top of the commonalities, the industries have historically been, to an extent, interdependent. This relationship — the dependence of newspapers on automotive advertising — was the subject of "Under the Hood," a presentation at the Canadian Newspaper Association's Ink + Beyond Conference Friday morning. Because, as the CNA's Susan Down put it in her introduction, "When the car industry has a cold, we're the ones blowing our noses."

Left to right: Dennis Desrosiers, Stuart Payne, Jon Wolman and Paul Anger

At the session, auto experts Dennis Desrosiers (auto industry analyst) and Stuart Payne (former director, Toyota Canada)  compared notes with Jon Wolman (publisher, The Detroit News) and Paul Anger (editor, The Detroit Free Press), discussing possible solutions for the current challenges.

From the auto industry standpoint, Payne and Desrosiers stressed the importance for newspapers to "think outside the box" when trying to attract auto advertising. Consumers and advertisers are looking for an interactive, on-demand and customizable experience, something they argued newspapers are not doing well enough. After all, Desrosiers argued, "why would we spend $2 billion on a new model, and then launch and advertise it in exactly the same way every other car has in the history of the automotive industry?"

But despite this, the two were optimistic about the ability of newspapers to come through, and don't believe that a digital-only future is near for newspapers. "It's still wonderful to open a paper and see a double-page spread ad," Payne said. "It's much nicer for a consumer than seeing a teeny little box online."

Surprisingly, the speakers from the newspaper industry were a little less optimistic about the future of print.

Wolman and Anger discussed the papers' joint decision in 2008 to launch the "Detroit Plan," a move that saw both papers cutting their home delivery to three days a week to save on fuel and print costs. The majority of their papers' ad revenue was already clumped on the three days (Thursday, Friday and Sunday), they said, so the decision made sense. The papers still appear on newsstands seven days a week, but in smaller, "express" versions. An e-edition, on top of the paper's website, is also available.

Wolman explained the move by repeating, throughout his presentation that "Newspapers in Detroit are actually living the stories we cover." He described the parallels between the newspaper and auto industrys as "torturous," and argued that, unlike the auto industry, newspapers are without bailouts.

The early results of the Detroit Plan have seen some small successes: 96 per cent of the papers' subscribers, they say, have stuck with them. But the real success, they argue, has been that revenue saved by cutting print costs has allowed them to devote more resources to digital, which is where they see their future.

"Do you believe that newspapers will be back to normal after this economic blip is over?" Anger asked the audience. His sombre tone suggested that he certainly didn't.

"Don't shed tears for print," he said. After all, it's the journalism that's important not the newspaper.