If newspaper must die, then let it not be today

Odoobo C. Bichachi

What you need to know:

What this story of the Deseret News tells us is that newspapers will not die (at least not soon) if they see themselves as innovative content products rather than basically news products

The Newspaper or print is dying” is something we hear so often nowadays that many journalists, media managers and media owners have already given up the battle, only struggling to live just a little longer until the death knell tolls and the familiar sound of the web printing machine goes quiet.

This is indeed true of newspapers in many parts of the world, Uganda inclusive, because it is no secret that many readers have migrated to reading news online – mostly from social media aggregators. The result is print circulation is down to unsustainable levels that in turn leads to mergers or complete shutdowns.

But as they say, even in the darkest of nights, a little star will twinkle somewhere in the dark sky giving hope that light shall return one way or the other. That lone star, for me, is the story of a small newspaper in Utah, USA that I read this week. See, “One Utah paper [Deseret News] is making money with a novel idea: print” – https://www.poynter.org/business-work/2024/deseret-news-digest-free-print-newspaper/

What is the Deseret News doing differently that it is enabling it to sail against the tide – at least in the short run?

Well, it is simply following an age-old idea that I picked up in my early years in book publishing from the ebullient and iconic publisher, Dr James R. Tumusiime, who needs little introduction.

Dr Tumusiime is the chairman and proprietor of Fountain Publishers Ltd, arguably the biggest indigenous book publishing house in the region with hundreds of titles across genres. He is also the founding managing director/managing editor of New Vision newspaper (in 1986), founder of Radio West, and also founder/proprietor of Igongo Cultural Centre Museum of South-Western Uganda.

During one of the regular chats we had in his Fountain House office, Nkrumah Road, or while driving in his big car to Makerere where the publishing office was situated then, he often said to me; “…a lot of content has existed for millennia, it is packaging that makes it new and saleable to consumers…”

He meant that one does not always have to tell new stories. One can attract readers by telling old stories differently, and better. Indeed we published many books, among them, Uganda’s Presidents: An Illustrated Biography (2012) that I co-edited with him, and more recently, Uganda: Events & Faces in the Making of a Nation (2022) that I edited. You can get a copy in leading Kampala bookshops or order online.

Back to the Deseret News and how it found its mojo! Apparently, it decided to launch a free monthly compendium of its best journalism in September [2023] and it’s been profitable since October!

Angela Fu, writing at www.Poynter.org, notes: “Dubbed ‘The Digest,’ the free publication amasses the Deseret News’ best journalism from its various platforms and is delivered to 120,000 homes around Salt Lake City once a month. The Digest launched in September and has been profitable since October…. ‘The result has been great enthusiasm from advertisers because this is now, I think, the largest newspaper product (in Utah)’. ”

So what is its content like? “The Digest  helps acquaint Utah residents with the Deseret News brand by republishing stories from the company’s website, newspaper, magazine and religion-focused publication” says publisher Burke Olsen, adding: ‘It reinvigorated our advertising base.”

So what magic is in the pullout? Olsen “speculated that a print paper taps into a certain nostalgia and its physicality lends readers a sense of accomplishment when they finish an issue.”

Niche is the word!

When Olsen worked as Deseret News’ head digital officer [his confession], “…‘[he] didn’t care about our print products for a long time,’ but The Digest has made him wonder if there’s a product or marketing campaign that could slow or even reverse declines in print readership.”

What this story of the Deseret News tells us is that newspapers will not die (at least not soon) if they see themselves as innovative content products rather than basically news products, news that is all over social media even before the printing press starts running.

And as Dr Tumusiime always said, content exists and it is primarily about packaging. Newspapers have a lot of good content to repackage and sell to audiences, not exactly in the manner the Deseret News is doing but in one of the one thousand ways to skin a cat.

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