By Eileen G. Mangubat

LOCAL STRENGTH. The November 2012 national thanksgiving for the sainthood of the Visayan Pedro Calungsod was viewed online by Filipinos abroad. Live streaming of local events on news websites pulls in the viewers, but a good strategy for monetizing this patronage has yet to be found.

These remarks were first delivered during the 17th National Press Forum of the Philippine Press Institute at the New World Hotel in Makati City on June 14, 2013.

I was asked to introduce today’s topic, and I don’t intend to leave you feeling depressed. We had enough of that yesterday.

We are in a state of transition. I prefer to call it death-defying change.

We are told that the newspaper industry as we know it is a dinosaur heading for the museum.

Paper costs, electricity and other overhead expenses go up sharply each year but not advertising revenue and circulation.

The struggle is most keenly felt in the provinces where TV and radio reach more people, and thereby get the bigger share of advertising pesos.

The recent May 13 election was a clear example. Most of the campaign budgets for publicity went to broadcasting.

As publishers, we see fewer people readily buying a subscription or going out of their way to look for a copy on the street, where years before—it was an easy decision to make and a reading habit difficult to break.

This situation applies to both national publications and community papers.

Hungry for information

Here’s the paradox.

People are consuming more information today than ever before.

And they are impatient about getting it.

They may not be reading daily or weekly newspapers as often, but they are finding out more about news and trends in a wider world at faster speed, through the Internet, on their mobile phones, and for ABC readers—the middle class that can afford it—tablets and iPads.

So should we all fold our tents and call it a day—surrender to a digital, anytime-anywhere information environment that seems to be available for free?

Not at all.

Local stories

The demand for news and information, and let me add another element—good design and visuals—is the biggest opportunity for the news media to do what it does best—storytelling with a purpose.

The platforms have increased and require new skills but the mission of journalism remains the same—to inform, tell the truth, and influence society for the public good.

For the community press, being locally focused is their most underestimated strength.

Regional newspapers have strong ties to decision makers in the provinces and business enterprises. They are on the ground. They know their audience.

With more training, they can provide the depth, color and analysis in more visually creative packages that will keep and grow readers.

But if we remain stuck in the traditional model of print only, we will surely head for a sunset.

Young readers who did not grow up reading a paper skip this stage altogether and satisfy their need for news and information on small screens—a mobile phone, a TV set, a PC or a tablet.

In the Philippines where the median age hovers somewhere at 24 years old, that’s a big population of young, restless potential readers to serve.

Advertisers are increasingly demanding from newspapers something new to attract readers for their target needs.

Innovations

Efforts to innovate actually continue in many newsrooms—and they must proceed at a faster pace.

In Cebu, all three English dailies have websites updated every morning or more frequently. They also have digital editions of the actual pages as they appear on paper— with stories, photos and advertisements intact.

Twitter is used for breaking news alerts and snippets of the newspaper content.

Leading Visayan dailies and weeklies in Bacolod, Iloilo, Ormoc, Dumaguete, Southern Leyte, and my counterparts in Luzon and Mindanao also maintain online editions and keep active Facebook accounts.

To avoid cannibalizing the print edition, and losing print subscribers, some papers like Cebu Daily News update their sites at midnight.

Online editions don’t cost a fortune to set up and they expand the reach of a paper to homesick Filipinos abroad.

Guess what these readers are looking for? News and images of home.

In the big league, the Philippine Daily Inquirer last month launched the use of “augmented reality,” one of the new trends in digital engagement being used in large media groups in Norway and India.

Someone with a smartphone can point the device to a photo or story in the newspaper that is specially tagged as InqSnap. This allows a reader to view richer information on his mobile phone—extra photos or a video clip of an actual interview or related stories. What’s good about this innovation is that it leads readers back to the print edition, adding value to the paper and hopefully improving copy sales.

Another hyperlocal opportunity used by community newspapers is major festivals like the Sinulog in Cebu and last November’s national thanksgiving of the sainthood of Pedro Calungsod, the first saint from the Visayas.

These events were viewed online by Filipinos abroad through live streaming video on news websites.

While this is a concerted effort to expand the audience reach, we need a deliberate strategy on how to earn revenue from something that is given virtually for free.

Monetization

Why? Because quality journalism is not cheap.

We’re not alone in wrestling with this challenge.

Newspapers around the world are struggling with the same question of how to monetize the traffic of their websites and cope with the shift in audiences and advertising share.

There is no magic formula.

HYBRID EXPERIMENTS. Newspapers are encouraged to experiment on hybrid platforms of print, online and mobile as in “augmented reality,” where pointing a smartphone to a photo or story specially tagged in a newspaper allows a reader to view more photos, a video clip or related stories on his mobile phone.

While we recognize that we live in an increasingly digital age in the Philippines, it is still our print editions that pay the bills and draw in advertisers—whether they are commercial brands or government notices.

Experiments will continue to try hybrid platforms of print plus online plus mobile. Print with more niche supplements. Print plus special events to engage the community. Print plus radio plus TV.

I just attended a conference with Inquirer colleagues in Bangkok for the World Association of Newspapers, and listened to publishers from Europe, the US and Asia all looking for a new business model to support their efforts to be a multi-platform provider of information.

Dynamic transformation

Digital media is the most dynamic segment but not yet a profit center.

I was struck by their common themes:

“Place high value in quality content, especially local content.”

“Continue to be bold.”

“Invest in training journalists.”

“We need a better understanding of how people consume news in a digital age.”

In one presentation, an editor placed it as a stark choice: “Innovate or die.”

I believe that transformation is already taking place in the marketplace and in our readers. The pace is faster in some areas than others.

These are not times for the fainthearted.

We need to keep an open mind and embrace change with a good grip of our journalistic principles and a mastery of the needs of our communities.

Our mission depends on it.

So, let’s welcome the morning’s speakers who offer suggestions to get us from survival mode to success story.

Eileen G. Mangubat is publisher and acting editor-in-chief of Cebu Daily News.