An Inevitable Evolution?

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

It’s sad to watch the newspaper dinosaurs thrash in the marketplace’s tar pits, but the Boston Globe‘s latest branding campaign is destined to become fossilized before the gunk dries.

The paper is all but extinct: its parent, the New York Times Co. (itself troubled), gave it one of those cut-off-your-legs-or-die threats when it demanded $20 million in cost concessions from the unions. Like the topsy-turvy craziness that lends much of the Conventional Wisdom on Detroit’s woes to suggest that legal obligations to former and current workers are the reason nobody wants to drive American-made cars, the dare to the Globe was all but a formal announcement of the paper’s demise. 

Then, only a few days later, word leaked out that the paper will run a branding and subscription campaign. In other words, it set its feet firmly in the tar. 

The ads will be headlined with "One Story," and will talk about the Globe‘s storytelling and photography in print and TV spots. Interestingly, it seems that the entire campaign will run on Times-owned or controlled media (NESN TV, the Globe itself, and a free communter tabloid). So thank goodness it isn’t actually paying for having helped along its own extinction.

But the branding, like the paper (it seems), is doomed. It didn’t have to be this way.

I know that brighter bulbs than I have been struggling with the challenges of newspaper circulation and readership for years now, and with little success to show for it. Marketers have tried every possible invention to garner interest, short of holding a puppy hostage and threatening to kill it unless people renewed their subscriptions. None of it has done much to stem the slide of these great, old beasts into the muck.

That’s because I don’t think the problem is that more people need to appreciate the beauty of the Globe‘s stories and photography. Its problem isn’t that folks don’t feel fond thoughts for it (the Globe is an institution, after all), or that they don’t realize that at least some content in the paper is available nowhere else (though that number has been shrinking significantly). There’s nothing that marketing can tell people that they don’t already know, and no amount of creativity or sincerity will change that fact.

The Globe has to become relevant to its readers…no, it needs to be needed…and that would require a rethinking of the paper itself, not just its branding.

Here’s a for instance: 

  • Instead of simply rearranging the paper’s sections to somehow appeal to the aesthetics of Internet consumers, why not do something that the Internet can’t do?
  • How about deliver objectivity and truth?
  • The POV of the paper, from its editorials to beat reporting, would get refocused to become arbiters of fact, providing assessments of the prior day’s news in a truly (and uniquely) fair way. It would shift from reporting the news to assessing it
  • So, while the Internet torrent of quasi-news and gossip swirled through the alimentary canals of readers’ screens and mobile devices, the Globe would be the resource that everyone wanted to check every morning…a reality check on what was said, who said it, and what it meant
  • In this way, the newspaper wouldn’t have to operate as a competitor to online noise, but rather recast itself as an augment and necessary pallative to it

Better yet, this purpose would be nearly impossible for other entities to copy or do better. The Globe would be utilizing its unique qualities — great reporters and editors, and processes for vetting truth from fiction — instead of dismantling them in order to mimic the breezy irrelevance of online news

Coming up with the branding campaign for this evolutionary step would be a hoot! And if this version was a dim bulb idea, I’m sure there are other ones that would have been worth pursuing.

Extinction wasn’t inevitable. But the latest branding campaign, without any real, relevant, needed changes to what the Globe hopes to accomplish, means that its hopes of survival are all but spent. 

Splish, splash. That tar pit sound is sad.

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