Tribune's Lee Abrams Defines America

In his latest think piece, Tribune Co. Chief Innovation Officer Lee Abrams describes the transformation of the company's national cable channel, WGN, into "WGN-America."

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"WHY 'AMERICA'? Because there's more to life than Hollywood and Manhattan," Abrams writes. "The channel will speak to Middle America. TV for the average person living in the average community. Interesting and exciting, but on Middle America terms."

 He describes the programming as "diverse as America itself."

"From Wrestling to Star Trek to the Beverly Hillbillies," Abrams writes. "All over the road...and proud of it!"

The breadth of America -- pro wrestling and reruns from the '70s. He also describes the station's new look ("America. From the inside out. Capturing the span of America from the urban factory to the small town motel.") and the sound ("Aaron Copeland meets Stevie Wonder meets Garth Brooks."). And he lists WGN's "heroes": John Wayne, Captain Kirk, Baseball, Clint Eastwood, Ronald Reagan, James Earl Jones, and Aretha Franklin. 

The piece is in its entirety can be read after the jump. 

March 09, 2009

THINK PIECE: CHANGE

THINK PIECE: CHANGE

First off, WGN-AMERICA is going through a significant redesign:

There's a great deal of excitement behind the scenes with the evolution of WGN-AMERICA. Below is a little sneak peek at the attitude. Sean & his group will certainly be filling everyone in on the details, but we thought you might like to check out this brief preview.

It should be noted that all of the rebranding has been done over a period of a few weeks. Amazing audio logo...sonic treatments...graphics, etc...

THE NEW AMERICA

WHY "AMERICA"? Because there's more to life than Hollywood and Manhattan. The channel will speak to Middle America. TV for the average person living in the average community. Interesting and exciting, but on Middle America terms.

THE PROGRAMMING: As diverse as America itself. From Wrestling to Star Trek to the Beverly Hillbillies. All over the road...and proud of it!

THE LOOK: America. From the inside out. Capturing the span of America from the urban factory to the small town motel. This is America. A video postcard of the American vista.

THE SOUND: Aaron Copeland meets Stevie Wonder meets Garth Brooks. Big...open...diverse and powerful. Cerebral and moving...just like the America itself. A single audio logo ties a WORLD of sound together into a station "soundtrack" that NO other station has....anywhere.

WHAT IT'S NOT: Forced patriotism, Church and Family. Those are clichés. This isn't County & Western TV. The REAL American experience is more about a powerful heartbeat that is alive with the good, the bad and the ugly.

THE HEROES:

John Wayne

Captain Kirk

Baseball

Clint Eastwood

Ronald Reagan

James Earl Jones

Aretha Franklin

....Timeless. All demographic. Not pop culture, but American Culture.

Coming from the music side, I've always found music to be a strong cultural barometer. One way to look at it is through periods of intensity and lull. This doesn't have anything directly to do with newspapers and TV, BUT---It illustrates how the vast majority of major artists hit brick walls, and become irrelivent by not engaging change. A handful survive change because THEY continually evolve or make such a powerful intitial statement that they are timeless. This very general style of thinking can be be applied to what we do

In the early 50's, it was Doggie in the Window era. Mitch Miller, Doris Day and the like were making snappy and happy songs. The underground was brewing with a sonic gumbo of Black artists and Hillbillies, but in the mainstream, it was all pretty, safe and happy. A musical LULL. During lulls, the mainstream music culture:

*Generic lyrics by dispoable short term artists dominate mainstream charts.

*Moguls are in control of the mainstream and the formula is followed closely followed.

*The "look" is pop fashion driven and contrived.

*Dancing is at a popularity peak as people dance and hum...but don't really LISTEN.

*Music has minimal impact on culture other than being a soundtrack

*There's an underground happening, but it is still out of reach to the masses.

*It's about tabloids more than musical notes.

*Music media is on autopilot.

*Mc Donalds Pop rules. Predictable...safe...consistent with few surprises. Musical originators are copied, cleansed for mass consumption and formularized.

*Artists have short life spans....and become trivia questions

Then--There are intense periods. Periods of tremendous change compressed into a short period of time. During Intense periods:

*The old wave hits a brick wall.

*The "sound" changes. New instruments...new techniques...new recording methods.

*The "look" is new...different and scary to many.

*Satan is responsible in many circles.

*Listening Technology changes.

*Music impacts culture profoundly. There are fights over music.

*Artists are in control.

*People dance less and start listening more

*The "next generation" of long term artists emerge

*Music Media goes through explosive evolution.

*Not a lot of copying artists--everyone is too busy creating their own sound or contributing to the movement.

The intense periods happened: 1955 (Rock n Roll); 1964 (Liverpool); 1969 (Everything); 1980 (New Wave); 1993 (Grunge). All of the above characteristics happened during these periods...and all of the 'lull' characteristics happened between these periods. Take the intense period of '69:

--All over for the old wave. Paul Revere and the Raiders hit the wall.

--Fuzz tones to synths to an arms race over number of tracks and amplifier output changed the sound. The modification and enlargement of traditional instruments.

--Musicianship was a selling point

--Lyrics were social statements

--Junior came home from college looking like a hippie and got thrown out of the house.

--Satan was responsible for the Iron Butterfly

--Stereo revolutionized listening as it became mainstream.

--FM emerged as a force

--Walk into the wrong bar and play Hendrix on the jukebox and a fight would ensue

--No one told Cream how to write a song or to keep it 3 minutes.

The next generation of artists is created. Lasting artists.

*You don't DANCE to Abbey Road. You LISTEN.

This is all highly CONDENSED and highly arguable, but due to space and finger strength limitations I can't get into all of the details, but suffice to say, we are IN a musical lull...live with it (and of course some prosper mightily from it)--or try to be part of the change. There WILL be another intense period. In '62 amidst every singer named Bobby, in '66 amidst the canned Monkees, in '76 amongst the sappy pop, 86 with mindless hair bands, and now---it's a lull. Like before--the lull makers hit the wall. Lulls still create fans! If you were in your musically formative 16-20 years during a lull--you still LOVE that music--but BIG PICTURE--the intense periods are where the shocking change happens. And of course there are a few artists that cut through. Elvis, Beatles, Pink Floyd, U-2, Sinatra--but those are the RARE 'timeless' artists that will be revered in 200 years...can't say that about more than a handful.

The point here is looking at culture from different view points to get a better fix on evolution and relevancy.

...I was in one of our markets recently and we talked about change. The station was in a little identity funk and needed to re-think itself. Items discussed:


*NOTICEABILITY: Thats so damn important. I fear that changes will go un-noticed unless they are packaged together into a single relaunch date. A day that the NEW station appears in complete form. We learned this from newspapers. They reinvented so incrementally that no-one outside of the building noticed. OR--they kept delaying changes...over-thinking them until they were either forgotten or simply not executed. A firm change date will:

*Create pressure to deliver. You commit to that date and the staff HAS to deliver ON that day.

*Do it ALL. So an advertiser or Joe Average Viewer WILL notice. "They said there'd be your ver 2.0 on April 15...well, damn it really IS new!!!"

The key is a realistic date. The worst thing is setting a date and delivering half the new stuff. Not good enough. Buzz kill. It ALL has to b presesented on that ONE day, so you are THE talk of the market.
The "other" way tobe the talk is to spend a ton. Bad idea. This single day reinvent cost NOTHING but brainpower, sweat and a WILL TO AFDI.

*MOTIVATION: I understand internal motivational issues, but I think its worth doing it as we did at papers. Orders from the top that this IS happening..You can be IN or out. A dynamic Reinvention session explaining it to the entire staff...then DAILY reinvent meetings....every day at 9am...progress reports...accountability...an action plan. Military like planning. Done right you can dramaticaly ratchet up the vibe. I truly believe even the quiet ones will come alive (or quickly ID themselves as ones to lose). You CAN create an amazing energy...but I think this approach will be most effective.

*TRADEMARKS: Imagine a FAST paced news show that integrates all of those ideas: N.O by Numbers; 60 Seconds with; Right/Left; Tabloid Trash; Sex in THE city; etc....WOW! It would MOVE! and be sooooooodifferent and more exciting and interesting than ANYone in the market. Face it---ALL the TV News looks the same. Unfortunately, the historic competition does quite well with that --- so why try to out do THEM. . RADICIALLY change the approach and give yourself a chance to create something special.

*DE BULLSHIT the station.

*USE SOUND: A soundtrack...an audio logo...cerebral presenation of sound thats in your head and not in your face. SUGGESTION: Dont use a TV package! Those guys simply dont get it---most of their clients WANT the tired old TV sound. Use people with NO TV experience to create the sound...otherwise, I guarantee, you will be stuck with a new version of the same old crap. Sound is an extra layer of identification. If you have branding and awareness trouble. USE SOUND to help dramatically fix that.

*A VO sound that is your city not ANYWHERE USA forced. Sound like it...Easy...soulful...real---a voice(es) that sound like your region instead of slick "pro" TV---aka anywhere USA.

*GRAPHICS. Stop the addiction to focusing on other TV stations. The innovation is more on YouTube, not the other stations. Kill the addiction to corporate, slick, hyper professional glossy TV....It ain't us.

*WRITING & WORDING. Pleeeeeease lose the "Hey We'll be right back"..."Dont forget--this Friday...." Its a joke. It's not YOU...it's TV in it's most generic and dated way. So hilariously cliched and hokey. We can write better. We can write 10 seconds of copy for a 30 and let sound tell the story. Lose the "!" in everything you say. Just talk. Dont "annouce" Just talk. And write with;


...INTELLECT. TV can be SO dumb. It's our own fault. We deliver our image like K-Mart and package our news based on the 1988 consultant Playbook. It's over. At least its over stations that are struggling using it. Been done. Time to reinvent it. Intellect doesnt mean NPR or CSPAN. Intellect is Apple, Lexus, Coldplay, 60 Minutes. Hardly elite...just smart...on todays terms.

*SECRETS: Expose them. Anchors positioned and promoted like plastic manniquins? Probably. Admit it and change it. News set right out of News Set 101 playbook. Admit it and change it. But again...do it all at once so its NOTICABLE. There IS a way to balance engaging journalism without cheesing it up.

*PEOPLE: The station is bigger than individuals.. Dont let them delay what you GOTTA do! Evolve.Reinvent as an entity without non believers compromising the mission.

*CLICHES: Spent a lot of time on those. Can't stress that enough. I counted over 30 cliches this morning on the air---not bad the competition had 40!

*TWEAKS: Not good. Why? Because no-one notices them outside the building. Theres WAAAAAY too much competition in other media not to mention TV. In 2009 you need to be DRAMATICALLY AND RADICALLY DIFFERENT to simply cut through.

*DRAMATIC & RADICAL IS:

a)Good. Actually its critical. Theres no other way to cut through.

b)The only way you'll get attention and ratings at this point.

c)Needed and wanted. Americans want change!!!

d)Necessary. Google and watch Onion TV. They are brilliantly making fun of us. We need to wake up and realize...they're right!

*YOUR CITY DESERVES A 21ST CENTURY TV STATION. Your city DOESNT need another station doing average TV.

*CREATE MAGIC BETWEEN THE SHOWS...and in news and areas you control. Get off autopilot as most stations are on and create FANS not users. You have the talent to do that.

*YOU UNDERMINE YOUR WEBSITE when you save everything for the web. Doing a loocal YouTube thing? Put it ON THE AIR. Its crazy how there's, around the country, this thing where papers and TV stations channel all the innovation to the web. The stronger the core product is, the stronger EVERYTHING will be...the web, the revenue, the buzz. If your TV people had a fraction of the innovation drive the average web person had, we'd be #1.

*THE NUMBER ONE TOOL FOR REVENUE? (or at least a huge tool)---A dramatically reinvented station that lances on April_____ (or whenever) that SLAMS IN THE CITY WITH THE FORCE OF AN A -BOMB. A statement. I really believe picking that date...and treating it with the same intensity and intellect that Schwartzkopf planned the Gulf War is in order. It IS a media war out there...gotta play to win. Plan...plan...motivate...prepare...throw out WW2 (aka the 1988 TV playbook) weaponry...and attack. One spring evening--WHAM! The New station hits and its TV shock and awe.

...the point here is that reinvention cant be half done....IF you are struggling---gotta go all the way, to be noticed

Here are a few (long) articles about Overseas Newspapers send over by Phillip Hirsh at the Chicago Tribune:

Turning the Page: The News on Europe's Newspapers
By Josh Levine / Amsterdam

For generations of journalists, life at the afternoon daily NRC Handelsblad was as warm and comfortable as a Dutch kitchen. The Netherlands' young burghers signed up for a home subscription when they got their first jobs and reluctantly let their subscriptions lapse when they died. If you were fortunate enough to work there as a journalist, you never had to worry about looking for another job. If there wasn't enough space for a particular subject, the paper simply added a supplement.

That world ended in 2000, when circulation at the Rotterdam-based paper peaked at around 270,000. Young readers stopped signing up. Circulation fell quickly; it's now approximately 220,000, and falling 5,000 to 10,000 a year. "We asked ourselves, 'Is this the end?'" says Hans Nijenhuis, then foreign editor at the newspaper.

As it happens, it was just the beginning. In March 2006, Handelsblad launched NRC Next, a splashy morning digest of the afternoon paper's best stuff, plus its own analysis and features written by a staff of young journalists. Nijenhuis, who became NRC Next's editor, thinks of it less as a daily paper than a daily magazine aimed directly at Handelsblad's lost generation of rich young readers. At one euro, the skinny NRC Next is only two-thirds the price of Handelsblad, but it looks and feels way cooler -- the paper it's printed on, for instance, is slightly heavier. "Readers have got to feel that this is better than Holland's four free dailies -- better even than Handelsblad -- or this isn't going to work," says Nijenhuis.

Finding things that work is on every publisher's and editor's mind these days. The situation in Europe is not quite as dire as it is in the U.S., where plunging profits, shrinking staff numbers and bankruptcies are now all commonplace. But Europe's newspapers are struggling just the same. Investment guru (and owner of a big chunk of the Washington Post Co.) Warren Buffett saw this coming. In 2006, he explained the depressing law of newspaper gravity at a meeting of his Berkshire Hathaway Corp.: "Newspaper readers are heading into the cemetery, while nonnewspaper readers are just getting out of college. It's hard to make money buying a business that's in permanent decline." Here's how three of Europe's newspaper firms are trying to prove the sage of Omaha wrong:

Younger, Sexier
No one's denying the grimness of newspaper arithmetic. But, like editor Nijenhuis and his colleagues at NRC Handelsblad, some are fighting back with clever reinventions of the format. Take NRC Next, which editorially is a mixed bag of analysis and fun. You may get a recycled profile of Barack Obama; if it's good on Tuesday, why shouldn't it be just as good on Wednesday? During a big soccer championship you might find a daily photo of a hunky player with an appraisal of his physique by Next's female staffers. What you won't find much of is news. "Our readers know the news already," says Nijenhuis. "When there's a general strike in France, our readers are seeing it on the Net at the same time the NRC Handelsblad reporter is covering it."

When it launched, NRC Next gave itself a goal of 80,000 daily readers in three years. NRC claims the paper's selling about 10,000 over that mark and that it made a profit of about $3.3 million on sales of $25 million in 2008. "Newspapers are so conservative, and now they're panicking, saying they've got to cut quality, cut costs," says Nijenhuis. "We say that's exactly what you don't do."

Why is such innovation coming out of Europe, so often dismissed as bereft of new business thinking? There are several reasons but foremost is competition. The U.S. newspaper landscape is a patchwork of one-newspaper towns. Profits are traditionally sky-high -- margins run to 30% in some cases -- and so is resistance to change. By contrast, Europe is a bloody battleground of national dailies, all clawing at one another. Competition breeds creativity, not to mention a willingness to live with slimmer profits. "The U.S. lost the beat on newspapers around the year 2000," says Vin Crosbie, a partner at media-consulting firm Digital Deliverance and the fifth generation of a Connecticut newspaper-owning family. "I'm just amazed that most U.S. newspapers update their websites once a day. In Norway, if there's a car crash, they update the whole paper."

Online or Dead
It's no accident Crosbie mentions Norway. That's the home of Verdens Gang, or VG, an Oslo-based afternoon daily often cited as a model for how to thrive in the brave new newspaper world. VG is owned by Schibsted, a media conglomerate that embraced the Net early and rode out seven years of heavy losses before getting it right. The stock market wanted CEO Kjell Aamot's head, and Schibsted's board was fully prepared to give it to them. Only Tinius Nagell-Erichsen, the revered former chairman who controlled the Schibsted family's trust, said no. Now VG's website, VG.no, is Norway's biggest destination, period. In 2007 VG Nett, the paper's online arm, had pretax earnings of $23.4 million on revenues of $55 million, up 44% over 2006 and accounting for just over a third of VG's total profits. Online ad revenue is also over a third of VG's total. That's simply unheard of for most newspapers.

There's an ancient, hand-cranked printing press in Schibsted's spanking modern lobby. Founder Christian Schibsted used this press to print his first newspapers in the mid-1800s. It stands as a poignant reminder not just of where the newspaper is coming from but where it's going. In the first nine months of 2008, the print version of the newspaper sold 290,000 copies a day on average, down 21,500 from the same period in 2007. Daily readership of the newspaper alone has dropped by close to half since 1997. Two years ago, in what seems a surprising lack of team spirit, the VG Nett folks strung a triumphal banner across their offices when online readership surpassed print readership: "Storre enn mor!" (Bigger than my mom!)

Torry Pedersen came up through the paper's ranks before moving to VG Nett. Today he's managing director for all of Verdens Gang, but he doesn't get sentimental about the smell of ink. As far as Pedersen is concerned, VG Nett got to where it is by ignoring the verities of newspapering and inventing a new set of rules. For starters, Pedersen and his editors try to identify the day's sexiest story -- anything from Israeli air strikes on Gaza to Britney Spears; "we don't care how important it is in typical newspaper terms." He then throws waves of reporters at it, updating the story continuously with material that he'll take from anybody and everybody. "The Net has broken the newspapers' monopoly on production and distribution," says Pedersen. "You always find that the first photos after a big event come from ordinary people." The site discovered that after the Asian tsunami of 2004, when photos uploaded from the cell phones of survivors gave VG Nett its most striking images. Those photos helped drive the website's readership to an all-time high. Pedersen now has a dedicated phone line -- 22 00, if you see anything interesting -- to transfer photos automatically from any cell phone directly into VG's system. "Most newspapers view the Internet as a new distribution outlet. VG looks at it as a new way of reading," says Bharat Anand, a professor of corporate strategy at Harvard Business School who used Schibsted as the subject of an admiring case study in 2007.

Anand's case study compared VG.no's 6 million monthly readers (it has since grown to 8 million) to NYTimes.com, which at the time had 14 million. VG got 11 page views per session and almost 10 sessions per visitor a month -- both figures almost twice those at the Times when the study was done. That boosts ad rates considerably. "If VG had the Times' numbers, revenue would fall by three to four times, and the site would be a loss-making entity," says Anand.

One of the debates raging in the newspaper world is whether yesterday's ink-stained wretches can be reprogrammed for a digital future. Pedersen says no, and he's not kidding. VG Nett is a separate company from the print Verdens Gang; it takes only 5% of its material from the newspaper, and hires young, inexperienced reporters. When the paper cut editorial staff, Pedersen didn't offer a single one of the old boys a job. "Just tell me the last time the same person won the 100-meter dash and the marathon," he says.

A Fresh Angle
Alan Rusbridger, editor of Britain's Guardian newspaper, takes a different view. Like VG in Norway, the Guardian was among the first British papers to recognize the Internet as the only portal in the storm that was buffeting traditional newspapers. Its own title wasn't spared. The Guardian's circulation was 516,000 in 1986; last year, it was down to around 351,000 copies. Unlike VG, however, the Guardian has bet its building that the future lies in so-called media integration -- the same single staff for newsprint, Internet and the video and audio reportage that are increasingly turning Internet news into a multimedia circus. The Guardian's new headquarters in the King's Cross area of London -- it moved in December -- houses enough video studios and fancy hardware to allow the Guardian to compete not just with other newspaper sites, but with CNN and the BBC.

The move has also triggered a massive reorganization of the Guardian's editors, reporters and photographers, designed to bust all barriers between the paper's different delivery platforms and end the balkanization of its often hostile tribes. As Rusbridger put it in a column shortly after the move, "There was not enough communication between papers and website, nor coordination of resources across seven days and four or five different media." But the blender approach can also leave an editor with a list of new tricks and a bunch of old dogs. Concedes Rusbridger: "It does sometimes dull the edge of coverage."

Every so often, though, you stumble on a Sean Smith. In 2003, the Guardian gave its celebrated war photographer a training course and a video camera, then told him to go to Iraq and play around with it. In the past three years, Smith has been nominated for an Emmy and won an award from the Royal Television Society, the first news stills photographer to be so honored.

Under Rusbridger's stewardship, the Guardian site has become one of the newspaper industry's most lauded, winning a kind of online Oscar called a Webby as best newspaper site three years running. Guardian.co.uk claims around 29 million unique monthly visitors, which puts it atop a fierce three-way tussle with the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph for the most online readers. The Mail and Telegraph have actually caught up quickly in the past year. But Charlie Beckett, a professor at the London School of Economics and author of SuperMedia, argues that it matters little which newspaper claims more online readers. "Whether one of them's got 15 million and the others have got 10 million is irrelevant economically," says Beckett. "Rusbridger's job is to save his own community and build on it so he can sell them stuff in the next phase -- it could be a ticket to a conference, it could be a social-networking site, anything. The other papers are doing the same thing for their communities. I think Rusbridger made the right business decision."

In a sense, the Guardian's community is unique, and bears little resemblance to the competition's. Only a third of Guardian.co.uk's readers live in the U.K. Some seven and a half million of them live in the U.S., making the Guardian perhaps the least local newspaper in the world. In Oct. 2007, the Guardian made that fact clear by launching www.guardianamerica.com, with its own American editor, political-news veteran Michael Tomasky, and a dedicated staff of 12 journalists. Clearly, the newspaper is staking its survival on becoming a global news brand.

But it's still got a long way to go. In the year ended March 2008, Guardian News and Media Division lost $52 million on turnover of $520 million and figures for the year ending March 2009 are likely to be substantially worse when they are released in the summer. (Fortunately, the Guardian is owned by the nonprofit Scott Trust, whose purpose is to safeguard it from the chill wind of the market.) Like other online newspapers, the Guardian has yet to figure out how to monetize its millions of visitors -- in other words, how to make a buck off them. According to calculations made by Digital Deliverance's Crosbie, it takes 16 online readers to make up for one lost print reader on the bottom line. "If you do the math, you see they're never going to make the money they were used to making," he says.

Even so, some of Europe's most hide-bound institutions are realizing that drastic change may not be such a bad thing. France's truculent leftist daily, Libération, was founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and a group of former Maoists in 1973. In its early firebrand days, employees from the editor to the janitor all received the same salary. It's been on life support for years, and it's a wonder no one's pulled the plug.

Today, Libé has a new benefactor in the form of Edouard de Rothschild, and a new unstarry-eyed editor, Laurent Joffrin. The paper flirted briefly with break-even in 2007 and it's trying to find a way to go post-ideological, sort of. The Net, conferences, French open-shirted philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy shilling with advertisers -- the new Libé will try almost anything. Joffrin even invited Carla Bruni, wife of France's rightist President Nicolas Sarkozy, to serve as celebrity editor for a day, but that was a step too far and Joffrin was forced to rescind the invitation amid howls of protest from employees. "If all we're doing is telling readers who's on the new équipe de France soccer team, we're dead," says Max Armanet, the Libération editor charged with finding new ways to get readers fired up again. "It's my job to make people desire us -- I am the editor in charge of Love. I can't tell you whether we'll be here in five years, but I can tell you it's a passionate undertaking." Passion probably isn't a bad place to start.

+++++++++++++++++++

Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009
Newspapers in Asia: A Positive Story
By Hannah Beech

There's a motorcycle-taxi stand near my home in Bangkok, and many of the drivers' hands are dirty. Not from urban grime or motor oil, but from newsprint. Fueled by a growing literacy rate and press reforms in some parts of the continent, Asia is enjoying what may be the world's last great newspaper boom. Eight of the world's 10 biggest paid-for daily newspapers are printed in Asia, according to the World Association of Newspapers (WAN). The largest national newspaper markets? China, India and Japan. (The U.S. is a distant fourth.)

Even as Europeans and North Americans abandon their paid subscriptions -- newspaper circulation contracted by 1.84% and 2.14% respectively in 2006-07, according to WAN's most recent figures -- Asia's grew by 4.74%. In India alone, 11.5 million new newspaper readers were added in 2008, and ad growth is chugging along at around 10% -- less robust than over the past two years but still remarkably strong. "Many people can't enjoy their morning cup of tea without their newspaper," says Rahul Kansal, chief marketing officer for the Times of India, the world's most read English-language broadsheet and a major player among a whopping 64,998 newspapers registered across India.

Asia's media expansion has mirrored the fall of its dictators, as newspaper readers thrill at no longer getting just the day's propaganda. In Indonesia, the number of newspapers has increased from a few dozen when strongman Suharto was deposed in 1998 to roughly 800 today. The market is so buoyant that a new English-language paper, the Jakarta Globe, revved up its printing presses last November, just as several cash-strapped American papers were readying their final editions. "The Indonesian middle class is growing, and many households subscribe to two newspapers," says Ali Basyah Suryo, strategic adviser to the start-up Globe. "People like to hold the newspaper in their hands and even clip stories or save copies. It's seen as a valuable product."

Even in China, where state censorship directives are dispensed daily to newspaper editors, a press revolution is under way. Over the past decade, the central government has started weaning newspapers off state subsidies. The free-market reality has forced editors to print stories that sell. While the People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's official mouthpiece, still publishes numbing headlines like "China-Mali Ties in Continuous Development," other newspapers are attracting readers by delving into corruption scandals and celebrity sex lives. Low Internet penetration throughout much of Asia ensures that it is newspapers -- not computer or cell-phone screens -- that impart information to readers. As of last September, only 12.24 million Indians were Internet subscribers, a fraction of the 180 million Indians who have newspaper subscriptions.

Online citizens may be more plentiful in East Asia, but even there paper rules. In Japan, the average household still subscribes to more than one newspaper. In fact, the Japanese are the world's most avid newspaper readers, despite a dip in circulation over the past couple of years. "One would be hard-pressed to find another country in the world where newspaper companies are publishing several million issues a day," says Yoichi Funabashi, editor in chief of the Asahi Shimbun, the world's second largest daily (after its rival the Yomiuri Shimbun) with more than 8 million subscribers. Nonetheless, publishers know they cannot count on younger consumers. The Asahi Shimbun is helping launch a paid service for thumb-tapping readers who want to access news through their cell phones. The multimedia program is set to roll out this summer and aims to hook 10 million subscribers in a few years.

The world's most fertile ground for newspapers is also the most dangerous for reporters. In 2008, 26 Asian journalists were killed in the line of duty, according to the International Press Institute, making Asia even deadlier than the Middle East for the fourth estate. Some 54 Asian journalists are languishing behind bars, says media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. Those disheartening statistics underline, however, the importance of Asia's newspapers as a check on the excesses of power -- something that should never go out of fashion.

With reporting by Madhur Singh / New Delhi

Posted by Lee at March 9, 2009 08:21 AM

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