Recently I tried to look up breaking news in the Tampa Bay area, my old stomping ground. I searched for the moniker of one newspaper, then another. Each time, I got offered the same, generically-named site. Instead of leveraging their unique strengths–the way I remember, one allegedly focused on the “good writing” of hard news while the other allegedly had better entertainment coverage–these publications share a website that brands no one. More critically, I doubt the site results in many conversions. What’s the point of having an online presence if you’re neither branding nor seeing decent ROI?

I bring this up because the decline of newspapers marches on. Never mind my optimism while writing a previous post showing ways that papers can boost business with digital messaging campaigns. It might be naiive to think publishers can grasp these simple truths while their heads reel from bad news heaped upon more. We’ve got eMarketer saying that U.S. newspaper ad revenue declined 16.4 percent to $37.9 billion in 2008 and will drop to $28.4 billion by 2012. And according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, newspapers were the top news source for only 35 percent of those surveyed in 2008, as opposed to 45 percent in 2007; meanwhile the Internet became tops for 40 percent of respondents in 2008, from 13 percent in 2007.

I still believe that what I posted earlier rings true. Especially after reading a recent Time magazine piece about the need to generate revenue from content, which ultimately will be the only way papers will survive. Time tried to figure out just how publishers can get consumers to pay for content when they’re used to free news online. As I said in that earlier post, it boils down to offering consumers something valuable and unique that they can’t get anywhere else.

Having a branded website is a good start. Consider that the top 10 newspaper web sites saw a combined 16 percent year-to-year growth of unique visitors in December, according to Nielsen Online. Most notable was the Los Angeles Times’ 73 percent growth and the Daily News Online Edition’s 99 percent growth. My advice to smaller local papers: Let the big national/international sites grab the majority of readers looking for free online content! Instead, promote the fact that you offer unique, valuable information that denizens of your city can’t get anywhere else.

Once you’ve got the visitors, though, you must engage them. There are many ways to do so, and the same methods can be used on both the paper’s website and print editions.

One idea: Advertise a short code and ask readers to text in a keyword (such as the paper’s name or city) in order to sign up for promotional messages. Or, more importantly, to sign up for premium content. Indeed, a publication could make use of a premium SMS service and generate revenue from readers who are willing to pay for an exclusive interview, or a first preview of a major news feature. They might especially be willing to subscribe if some of these messages included coupons. (After all, coupons are why lots of people take only the Sunday edition of their local paper.)

To the uninformed, I’ll admit, texting still has the aura of “young”; despite older generations’ increasing adoption, SMS marketing might not appeal to those whose readership is above a certain age. Email subscriptions offering the same type of content would also be beneficial, and might be more palatable to old-school publishers (and their readers) who aren’t digitally savvy. In this case, there should be a subscription form on the paper’s website, and a link to that form from the home page.

Digital messaging offers both branding and a firm way to measure ROI. That’s something newspapers these days need to strategize and survive. By adding premium content, newspapers offer consumers information that they want, that holds unique value, and is delivered the way that’s most convenient for them to be reached. Oh, and they’ll generate revenue too.