Saving Newspapers With Direct Mail in a Digital Age

Yesterday, I was riding the train in to work when I saw a fellow passenger doing something a little unusual: reading the newspaper.

Yesterday, I was riding the train in to work when I saw a fellow passenger doing something a little unusual: reading the newspaper.

We are living in a smartphone world, after all. Aside from a little conversation here and there, most people spend their time looking down, quietly staring at their screens.

And I’m one of them too, mostly.

So there she was, flipping through the newspaper’s sections, and circling stories with a pen. I remembered a story I read (online of course) this week.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett said in a CNBC interview that most newspapers will probably not survive in the long term. He picked the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times as those with a certain future. They’ve managed to figure out a digital strategy to go along with a print one, he said.

I wonder what role, if any, direct mail will play in the years ahead in driving subscriptions for these two brands, and the industry as a whole.

nyt_01The New York Times recently mailed an invitation-style envelope that included a notecard-type letter inside. The top leaf shows a cup of coffee, a pair of glasses, a phone, and sections of the paper, as well as the magazine. I liked the design because I can relate to it. But the letter itself left me a little cold.

After “Dear Reader,” it jumps right into four paragraphs with headings that seem a bit self-absorbed. “The touchstone of news,” “The most engaging storytelling,” “Discover real journalism” … I know it’s a great institution, but really?

The Wall Street Journal’s mail is better. They’ve moved away from relying on bare-bones voucher offers to also use an actual letter. The paper’s Editor-in-Chief says that it “explores the most important world of all. YOURS.” He talks about how the Journal’s “brand new features and expanded coverage” are all devoted to “your interests and passions.”

OK, so it’s not exactly like Martin Conroy’s “2 Young Men” letter, which made over $2 billion for the Journal during its run.

But it’s something.

As long as newspapers can persuade readers to pay good money for high-quality, one-of-a-kind, and relevant content, they’ll survive, and hopefully thrive. Whether it’s direct mail that gets that job done is a big question.

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