- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 25, 2009

Newspapers are fighting back against predictions that the printed word is dead.

“Individuated news” has arrived.

With an array of Internet-driven technologies, consumers can now choose their own mix of news stories, to be delivered to computer screen, palm device or even home printer, complete with discount coupons for local merchants.

“There are two kinds of content now. You choose it, or it’s chosen for you. The idea here is self-selection of the news, delivered to any platform, at any time,” said Peter Vandevanter, vice president of targeted products for Denver-based Media News Group, which owns 54 daily newspapers in 11 states.

He coined the term “individuated news” after years of research into a challenge threatening the entire newspaper industry. Faced with cutthroat competition for audiences from broadcast and Internet, how can newspapers survive as revenue and readership dwindle?

“The great challenge the news industry faces is the need to develop new distribution platforms that provide our consumers with the news they want, when they want it and where they want it,” said John Solomon, executive editor of The Washington Times.

The Times is hosting a two-day symposium on the innovative idea beginning Thursday.

“The individuated newspaper experiments by Media News and The Washington Times open a new opportunity for delivering custom news products to paying customers in cost-effective ways. We have an enormous fire hose of content and this gives us an exciting new way to deliver slices of that news content to the very people who choose it,” Mr. Solomon said.

Newspaper executives have plumbed myriad ways to “monetize” their news - most often offered free of charge online. It can bring notoriety and buzz - but no cash.

The remedy, Mr. Vandevanter said, is in consumers themselves, now conditioned to relish the deeply personalized experience afforded by Pandora, which offers customized music selections, and Amazon, which offers book choices targeted to distinct tastes.

“Once, the medium was the message. Now the message is the medium. Content is driving this, and in a way, it’s a form of citizen journalism. They’re close cousins. In this case, the news is citizen selected, but not citizen produced,” Mr. Vandevanter said.

Seventy news executives are attending the “Individuated News Conference,” including representatives from the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Politico and Gannett.

The group will explore what’s billed as “the evolving newspaper model,” including hyperlocalized newspaper content, precisely targeted advertising opportunities, innovative spin-off products or flexible payment options for finicky customers.

Newspapers have one historic advantage, however.

“There’s a trust factor involved. People still trust newspapers; they still rely on their credibility and news value. So in that sense, newspapers are still in the driver’s seat,” Mr. Vandevanter said.

Still, the industry itself is in full emergency mode. Newspaper print ad revenues fell $7.8 billion in 2008, according to the Newspaper Association of America. Print ad sales fell by $6 billion in the first quarter of 2009 alone - making this the worst period of revenue decline in industry history.

Almost 6,000 newspaper journalists lost their jobs last year, according to the American Society of News Editors.

“We’ve entered a period of journalism where we are struggling to figure out the next sustainable business models while the old ones are steadily eroding. It’s a two-fold challenge. You have to figure out what works in the long haul, and what will keep you going for now,” said Bill Mitchell, director of News Transformation and International Programs at the Poynter Institute.

“The idea of delivering customized news reports is worth exploring,” he said.

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