California Watch map mashup of schools on fault linesNieman Journalism Lab scored a coup in landing the eloquent and insightful Ken Doctor as a weekly columnist focusing on the economics of news. His analysis of the cost of journalism at California Watch is well worth reading if you want to understand why nonprofit investigative ventures are so popular right now (ProPublica just nabbed its second Pulitzer).

California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground,” an account of the dangerous vulnerability of many California schools to collapse in the event of an earthquake, is “old-fashioned, shoe-leather, box-opening, follow-the-string journalism, and it is well done,” Doctor says. It also cost over a half million dollars to report, an amount that would have caused most newspaper publishers to gulp even before the industry entered its string of 21 consecutive quarterly revenue declines.

But a half million is a relative bargain when you consider the number of media organizations that benefited from it. Pieces of the series ran in six major dailies and were picked up statewide by ABC-affiliate broadcasters. Top public radio stations in the Bay Area and Los Angeles ran with it, and a number of ethnic and online outlets (including more than 125 Patch sites) also picked up the coverage. Many localized the content by snipping local maps or extracting information about their area from the voluminous database of school-by-school information that the project produced.

Doctor notes that California Watch is building a new kind of syndication business around investigative journalism, which is the branch of news that has been hardest hit by budget cuts over the last three years. This is not a reincarnation of the Associated Press model, which mainly delivered breaking news. Bloggers, citizen media and Twitter have diminished the value of that function considerably. What citizen journalism can’t do it spend 20 months developing a story, which is what California Watch did.

California Watch is still “feeling its way along,” in Doctor’s words. Syndication revenue won’t support its current $2.7 million annual budget, so donations are grants are still essential to its livelihood. But look at what donors get for their money: About 70% of that $2.7 million goes to support the project’s 14 journalists. By comparison, a typical daily newspaper’s editorial costs are about 20% of overall expenses. These nonprofit models are vastly more efficient than the newspaper investigative teams they’re replacing.

And when you spread those costs among a lot of subscribers who pay a few thousand bucks a year to get access to the reports, it’s really not that expensive. “An owner…can hardly reject the offer of paying one-hundredth of the cost for space-filling, audience-interesting content,” Doctor writes. Particularly when compared to the value of a single child’s life who might have been saved (hearings are already under way).

Doctor’s analysis raises an important point about the evolving economics of information. In a world in which raw data has become a nearly valueless commodity, value is derived from filtering and contextualizing information for specific audiences. The small California weekly that could never dream of spending a half million dollars on an investigative project can spend a few hundred dollars to buy the work of a dedicated investigative team and then extract the information that’s relevant to its readers.

This is a much more efficient way to deliver news, but taking advantage of it requires discarding treasured assumptions like the not-invented-here syndrome and the belief that scope and scale define importance. It’s good news for local publishers. In the traditional model, only a handful of California papers could have tackled a project the size of On Shaky Ground. Now nearly everyone can share the wealth.

The Long, Slow Bleed

Newspaper ad revenue forecastLest anyone think the lack of major metro daily closures over the last couple of years is a sign of strength in the newspaper industry, consider recent earnings reports. Ad revenues at Gannett, McClatchy, Media General and Journal Communications were all off between 6% and 11% in the first quarter, and there’s no sign of a turnaround. Alan Mutter’s analysis makes an important point about why newspaper advertising isn’t sharing in the sputtering recovery.

The more advertisers of all types experiment with Web, mobile and social advertising, the more they will come to appreciate the power of the digital media to tightly target qualified prospects while granularly measuring the costs and effectiveness of their campaigns.

In sales jargon, the buying process is a funnel, with a large number of uninformed prospects at the mouth and a few qualified buyers at the tip. As consumers increasingly research their purchase decisions online, the need for merchants to advertise their availability declines. They get more leverage from intercepting buyers during the decision-making process. The deeper into that process buyers get, the better the prospect of converting them to customers. And incidentally, vendors only have to pay for actions like clicks and leads, not vague measures  like circulation.

The reason newspaper closures have largely stopped is that the industry’s near-death experience in 2008 – 2009 focused publishers on slashing costs, raising subscription prices and squeezing as much blood as possible out of the stone of an aging and shrinking circulation base. That is not a prescription for growth. We continue to stand by our 2006 prediction that major metro daily print newspapers will all but disappear by 2025. In fact, we think it’ll happen sooner than that. It’s just that death will come from cancer, not heart attack.

Miscellany

The Las Vegas Review-Journal is expanding its business model beyond pure advertising. according to a press release,  a partnership with parent company Stephens Media LLC’s digital arm will enable the Review-Journal to launch a service to  provide local businesses:

…full website, branding and logo design; hosting and customer support for websites and related digital services; email marketing; mobile marketing; training to provide local businesses easy tools to maintain and update their own sites and analyze web traffic; search engine optimization and search engine marketing; customer reputation management with daily reporting; social media presence and tracking tools for digital and traditional marketing efforts to ensure monitoring of ROI.

Hmmm, why didn’t we think of that?

Desperation often drives innovation, and the miserable state of the Las Vegas economy no doubt played a role in this quest for new revenue sources. We think it’s a smart move; most small businesses have no idea how to market themselves online and a local newspaper is a trusted partner that’s in a great position to give them a hand.

AOL’s Patch network of hyperlocal news sites intends to recruit 8,000 bloggers over the next few days. It’s asking each of its 800 sites to sign up 10 community members to blog. No word on whether the contributors will be paid, but given that Arianna Huffington is now running the show, we think we know the answer to that one.

And Finally…

Typewriter typebarsReports emerged in the Twittersphere early this week that the world’s last manufacturer of mechanical typewriters was closing down its India production plant. A lot of people, including us, were taken in by this. But there’s good news for the old-timers who still appreciate the clatter of metal on paper. Atlantic Wire reports that several factories in China, Japan and Indonesia are still manufacturing typewriters. Even if production shuts down, there’s a pretty good used market. For old time’s sake, we bought an IBM Selectric, which used retail for $450 in the 1970s, for a buck at a yard sale a couple of years back. We’re still not sure what to do with it.

By Paul Gillin | March 29, 2011 - 6:41 am - Posted in Business News, BusinessModel, Circulation, Demographics, Newspapers, Paywalls, Solutions

The pundits (ourselves included) just can’t get enough of analyzing, trashing and otherwise second-guessing The New York Times‘ new online subscription plan. Here are some recent posts we noticed.

Steve Outing Pretty Much Trashes the NYT Paywall

For starters, it’s too expensive. The $15/mo minimum makes the Times all but inaccessible to cash-strapped young readers, which happen to be the people the paper most needs to engage. He also hates the defensive posturing publishers are using to justify subscription fees: “We need to do this to survive.”

Now THERE’s an incentive to customers to support you: Tell them if they don’t, you’re going to go out of business. How’s that working out for you, General Motors?

Outing points to the Times‘ own David Carr as the source of the right price: $4.99/mo. Respondents to Carr’s defense of the paywall plan posted on nytimes.com repeatedly refer to that fee as one they can swallow. Is anyone upstairs listening?

How To Hack the New York Times Paywall … With Your Delete Key

Mashable reports a new way to easily breach the paywall: “Readers need only remove “?gwh=numbers” from the URL. They can also clear their browser caches, or switch browsers as soon as they see the subscription prompt. All three of these simple fixes will let them continue reading.”

The NYT’s Melting Iceberg Syndrome

Frédéric Filloux suggests that The New York Times could improve its profitability by going to Sunday-only publication and forgetting about the other six days of the week, at least in print. “Sunday circulation is 54% higher than on weekdays…Sunday copy sales bring five times more money than any weekday…Some analysts say the Sunday NYT accounts for about 50% of the paper’s entire advertising revenue.”

If the Times could cut more than half its expenses by eliminating six days’ worth of print, it could theoretically make more money by publishing less frequently.

We also liked Filloux’ use of an iceberg as the analogy for a business that’s collapsing from within: “As an iceberg melts, the resulting change of shape can cause it to list gradually or to become unstable and topple over suddenly.” See any similarities to what’s happening to print?

A Big Op to Upgrade Op-Ed at New York Times

Alan Mutter believe the departure of Times columnists Frank Rich and Bob Herbert presents an historic opportunity for the Old Gray Lady to become the amazing technicolor dreamcoat of diversity of opinion. If Times‘ columnists are so smart, how come they missed the historic events going on the Middle East? Mutter asks. That’s what happens when your world is limited to Manhattan and the Beltway.

“Instead of dedicating the bulk of its limited and precious op-ed space to another generation of slightly more diverse Pooh-Bahs, the Times should publish the best of the online conversations in its print editions,” the Newsosaur recommends. That would be both good journalism and good promotion for the Time’s pricey paywall.

New York Times Digital Subscriptions: The Unofficial FAQ Updated

PaidContent.org has a useful rundown of the ins and outs of the Times‘ paywall, including pricing tiers, thresholds and platforms. Can you get a family account to nytimes.com? You’ll just have to read this FAQ to find out.

From the Onion: NYTimes.com’s Plan To Charge People Money For Consuming Goods, Services Called Bold Business Move

“In a move that media executives, economic forecasters, and business analysts alike are calling ‘extremely bold,’ NYTimes.com put into place a groundbreaking new business model today in which the news website will charge people money to consume the goods and services it provides.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is profitable again, and “This ensures that we can continue to produce the quality journalism that you’ve told us is important to you,” crows Publisher Michael Joseph in a 1,000-word tribute to all that the paper is doing for its community. “Our improved financial picture is allowing us to again expand content offerings that are targeted toward what you’ve told us really matters in your lives.”

It will be interesting to see if area readers agree with this publisher’s optimism (comments are disabled on the essay), for the AJC has suffered some of the worst cutbacks of any major metro daily. In early 2009, the paper laid off 30% of its editorial staff, reducing its total size to less than half of what it was in 2006. Distribution to seven outlying counties was discontinued, coming on top of an earlier decision to cut all its regional editions. The AJC daily circulation fell 52% between 2002 and 2010, although some of that loss was self-inflicted due to distribution cutbacks.

The question is whether a newspaper with a staff of 230 journalists can produce the same quality of material as one with 500. We don’t want to dismiss out of hand the possibility that it can, but it won’t look anything like the paper it was a few years ago. In a desperate bid to survive amid its circulation free-fall, the AJC has completely upended its editorial model over the last five years, turning most of its attention to the suburbs and vacating its downtown offices in August in favor of cheaper space near the northern suburb of Dunwoody It has taken steps to address a perceived left-wing bias and chosen not to endorse candidates in recent elections. The AJC has partnered with local Cox TV and radio stations on tag-team reporting projects, attempted to partner with local weeklies to share content and even run occasional pieces from Demand Media, the crowdsourced editorial engine that assigns stories by keyword relevancy.

Can you cost cut your way back to success? The AJC will be on the leading edge of answering that question. There’s nothing like a near-death experience to focus the mind, and in slashing its costs, the paper has had to make some grueling decisions. Its experience is probably familiar to many in the industry, where the shift of the audience to the suburbs has challenged publishers to remain relevant at the local level its audience cares most about. It helps that the AJC has a near monopoly in its market, and that its website is the default destination for news about all things Atlanta. There’s nothing particularly special about its Web presence, but it was one of the first major dailies to release an iPad app.

Its free classifieds service is an acknowledgment that there is no more money in that business anymore. The question is where the revenues are going to come from? A lot of eyes in Atlanta will no doubt be on The New York Times as it attempts to launch a paid online subscription model in the first quarter. For a paper with the regional clout of the AJC, that may be just what the doctor ordered.


The New York Times asks if comedian Jon Stewart is the modern-day Edward R. Murrow, citing Stewart’s advocacy for legislation awarding health-care benefits to 9/11 responders that passed in the last hours of the 111th Congress. Stewart devoted his Dec. 16 show to the bill, which had received little coverage in mainstream media and was about to die with Congress’ adjournment. That show is widely credited with having resuscitated efforts to get the measure approved. Stewart says he isn’t a journalist, but the Times points to similar advocacy reporting by Murrow and Walter Cronkite that shifted public opinion about events in their time, and suggests that Stewart’s appeal to young audiences may kindle an interest in advocacy journalism by a new generation.


People passing by newsstands in Sacramento may do a double take when they hear the “talking news rack” deliver a 15 second recorded message each time a newspaper’s purchase. The news racks also have a scrolling LED that can display news, messages from the editor and even ads.


Shana Swers In the weeks before her death from the rare disorder of peripartum cardiomyopathy, Shana Swers documented her ordeal on Facebook. Reporter Ian Shapira was intrigued, and when the Washington Post assigned him to tell the story, he chose to anchor it in Swers’ own Facebook posts. The clips from Swers’ wall were annotated by Shapira, who did the traditional blocking and tackling of interviewing family members and medical experts, but the writer chose to sacrifice the journalist’s traditional privilege of owning the narrative. The piece is already being held up as one of the most innovative alternative news stories of the year. Mallary Jean Tenore provides more background on Poynter.

Cow MilkingSo what are they thinking at The New York Times Co.? Having failed to sell its New England properties last year at an asking price that was reportedly 97% below what the Times Co paid for the Boston Globe and Worcester Telegram & Gazette in 1993, the company has now settled on splitting the Globe into two parts: one paid and the other free.

According to an account in Editor & Publisher:

Whereas Boston.com will continue to offer breaking news, sports, and weather from various sources, along with classified advertising, social networking, and information about travel, restaurants and entertainment, BostonGlobe.com will be designed to mirror the experience of reading the paper’s print edition. It will contain all the reports from the day’s paper as well as exclusive reports, in-depth news, analysis, commentary, photos and graphics, plus video and interactive features.

What does this mean? Will Boston.com become a My Yahoo-like text portal with wire feeds and little else? Will all of the material produced by the paper’s staff of reporters and photographers migrate to the paid edition but not be available to non-paying subscribers? How will those staffers feel about reaching a smaller audience? Will paid subscribers get anything more than an online version of the print edition? If so, why wouldn’t they just choose to receive the print edition in the first place and skip the whole online hoohah?

The answers to these questions will no doubt emerge in the nine months or so that the Globe has to consider its transition. Staffers will be watching the experience of their corporate parent as it imposes a pay wall at nytimes.com in January. BTW, we haven’t heard a whole lot about the plans for that experiment in recent months. We assume it’s still on.

We are on record as believing that paywalls will not work to salvage or grow the newspaper industry, but we also believe that the New York Times Co.’s strategy in this case is sound. Basically, management has recognized that trying to rejuvenate the print operation is futile, so it’s better to manage it into the ground as profitably as possible. This means raising subscription rates, erecting pay walls, holding the line on advertising prices for existing customers and generally trying to squeeze every last dollar out of the print operation that it can. It’s called milking the cash cow, and it’s a tried-and-true business strategy.

It is also a strategy of capitulation. The Boston Globe will never again see growth in its print edition,  so the best it can do is to wring profits out of the dwindling number of subscribers it has. Publishers are learning that over in London right now, where online readership of the Times fell 7.6% between July and August. Page views dipped 22% and time spent on site fell 16%. Some of this was no doubt due to the summer holiday, but the evidence is becoming abundant that pay walls significantly reduce traffic. The question is whether the incremental revenue offsets the corresponding declines in readership. No one has an answer yet, but it appears that newspaper publishers are increasingly willing to admit that print has no future and trying to get what they can out of a dying franchise. Believe it or not, than is healthy.

In the case of the Globe, The Times Co. will hopefully plow profits from paid subscriptions back into new properties that have the potential for growth, but it may choose to do something else instead. In the meantime, the message from the Globe’s move is that print is dead, resuscitation efforts are futile and those who still value print are going to pay for the privilege of receiving it. Not a bad strategy at all. At least it’s realistic.

Miscellany

Staffers at the Globe and elsewhere might want to look at the experience in Pittsburgh, where the Post-Gazette‘s PG+ is reportedly profitable and figuring out a sustainable business. The secret sauce in the publishing realm is sports, which motivates fans in the Steel City to fork over dollars in exchange for the latest information about local stars. However, a more important development may be the Web property’s shift into new areas of revenue such as sponsored events. “Those events have included a Post-Gazette “summer camp” featuring classes on fly fishing and cooking, as well as higher-brow discussions of the midterm elections,” writes Poynter’s Bill Mitchell. Hmmm… diversifying revenue. Where have we heard that before?


Did we really say that print is dead? Well The Wall Street Journal’s print advertising revenue jumped 21% in the just-completed quarter compared to the year-ago period, according to a memo from Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton. Online revenue was up, too. Those are impressive numbers, but one month does not a trend make.


Did we really say that print is dead? The Richmond (Mo.) News will reduce its print frequency from daily to twice weekly. Beginning Oct. 18, the 96-year-old News will be published on Monday and Thursday afternoons.


Slate’s Jack Shafer writes entertainingly about the history of the op-ed page, a 40-year-old invention often credited to The New York Times. Not surprisingly, the idea of portraying opposing viewpoints directly across from a newspaper’s editorial page has many fathers, given that it “has undoubtedly been one of the great newspaper innovations of the century,” in the words of John B. Oakes, a Times editorial board member who proposed the concept in the late 1950s. Oakes says the idea was his, but others who were at the Times dispute that, and other papers used similar vehicles as early as the 1920s. The Times‘ move to action was actually spurred by the death of the New York Herald Tribune in 1966, which removed a major conservative voice from the market. Editors realized there was an opportunity in dissent, and began openly soliciting prominent foes to write for their pages. This turned out to be a good business decision, since public figures write for cheap and the Times was able to realize an immediate advertising windfall. The concept was quickly picked up by other newspapers and  became a staple. It’s hard to believe that something we accept so easily today was the subject of so much controversy a few decades ago.


They’re on a bit of a roll over at Verve Wireless, which just raised $7 million for development and expansion of its local ad network and publisher platform. Among the investors are The Associated Press. Verve creates apps to deliver news to mobile devices. In addition to contracts with McClatchy, Belo Interactive and The AP. the company was selected earlier this year by the Audit Bureau of Circulations to measure the audience on mobile applications, mobile browsers and tablets. Verve Wireless claims that 750 publishers worldwide are using its apps.

And Finally…

Publishers could do worse than to rely upon the genius of their reporters. In Chicago, Sun-Times reporter Kara Spak won a “Jeopardy” quiz show to the tune of $24,001. In response to a question about an 1863 poem that mentions “the eighteenth of April in Seventy-Five,” Spak correctly identified the source as “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” We don’t believe her employer requires her to contribute her winnings to the company pension fund. Had she worked for Tribune Co., we’re not so sure that would have applied.

Only 25% of Americans say they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in either newspapers or TV news, according to a Gallup survey. That puts mainstream media on par with banks and slightly better than health maintenance organizations on the trust barometer. The stats are from Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions survey. At the top of the trust heap? The military. And at the bottom? Congress.

Gallup confidence survey

The results varied significantly by age. Nearly half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 said they had confidence in newspapers. However, disillusionment evidently sets in early, as the confidence level dropped to 16% among 30- to 49-year-olds, making them the most cynical group. Even liberals, who have traditionally been a stronghold of support for mainstream media, expressed support to the tune of  only 35%. It’s important to keep the results in perspective, though. Gallup has been conducting this survey annually for the last 20 years, and confidence in newspapers has never exceeded 39% during that time. However, confidence dipped from the low 30s to the low 20s about four years ago and has been stuck there ever since.

Good News for Hyperlocals

Hot new DC news startup TBD “resembles a sleek, coolly designed, high-tech house with several unfurnished rooms — and a market value yet to be determined,” writes Howard Kurtz in a generally favorable review of the most ambitious hyperlocal launch of the year. The site, which has 15 reporters buttressed by an army of 127 local bloggers, “has a voice, a sense of fun and a knack for packaging short items that creates the appearance of flow and momentum,” Kurtz writes. It also has some good political reporting, although the staff seems to be more focused on local news than national or global politics. TBD has been closely watched as a potential model for hyperlocal startups because of its inclusive approach to community journalism and its backing by a major media company, Allbritton Communications, which also owns The Politico, as well as a collection of regional television stations

Also on the hyperlocal front, BringMeTheNews, an aggregation and podcasting venture founded by former Twin Cities news anchor Rick Kupchella (right), just raised $1 million from two local investors. The site has an interesting business model and has reportedly been profitable since day one. It aggregates headlines and summaries from “hundreds of online news and non-traditional sources” around Minnesota and publishes them on its website. It also produces audio news summaries that are picked up by Minnesota radio stations and broadcast to about 1.5 million listeners each day. At the moment, the site produces no original content.

The advertising model is also novel: The site carries no more than four paid sponsors, who buy contracts of at least six months’ duration. Sponsors are also expected to “provide informational advertising of interest to our audience.” According to MinnPost, “Sponsored copy is integrated into the links BringMeTheNews curates, and carries the sponsor’s logo. Theoretically, the copy is useful information for readers (Explore Minnesota tourist guides, OptumHealth wellness tips) while still advancing the sponsor’s interest.”

Despite having only one-eighth the traffic of MinnPost, BringMeTheNews has apparently hit upon a revenue model that works, even at low volume levels. Kupchella said the business would still be viable without the radio component.

Miscellany

The Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette will begin charging up to $15/mo. for access to local news articles. Non-print subscribers will be able to read 10 stories for free before the paywall goes up. The T&G is owned by The New York Times Co., which plans to build a paywall at its flagship newspaper in January. The Worcester experiment may be a pricing trial balloon. If a lot of people will pay $15/mo. to read the T&G, it’s good news for the Times. We doubt it, though.


More good news: PaidContent.org is hiring reporters. If you are  “deep into areas like online video or digital advertising or gaming,” “can pick apart a media company’s balance sheet” and/or “are dogged and enterprising,” drop a line to jobs@paidcontent.org. You’d better have expertise in media, though. That’s a given.


Having driven Tribune Co. into the ground in record time, Sam Zell now wants his money back. The Chicago real estate mogul invested $315 million in Tribune Co. back in 2007, which was arguably the worst time in history to invest in a newspaper company. He then demonstrated near-total ignorance of the business challenges facing the $6 billion company that he designated himself to run, and succeeded at steering the company into bankruptcy in a little more than 18 months. Well, that was fun, but now it’s time to cash out and go home. Chicago Business sorts through all the legalese, if you’re interested.

And Finally…

As if to underline the shrinking attention span of the American news consumer, American Public Media’s Marketplace Radio devoted all of six sentences to summarizing the world financial situation last week. The idea came about during a daily news meeting, when staffers were boiling down the factors underlying the global financial crisis and thought it would be funny to express them as simply as possible. Megan Garber has the background on Nieman Journalism Lab. We snipped out the 90-second segment below for your listening pleasure.

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Hawaiians are preparing to be one newspaper poorer.

Gannett officially exited the Hawaiian market where it has played for nearly 40 years. The company signed over ownership of the Honolulu Advertiser to the owner of rival Honolulu Star-Bulletin, bringing an end to a brutally competitive battle. Analysts say Gannett was winning the war but chose to cash out rather than to fight a smaller competitor that simply wouldn’t go away.

The Star-Bulletin plans to merge the two papers into the Honolulu Star-Advertiser sometime in the next 60 days, cutting about 300 of jobs in the process. The combined papers will have a circulation of between 135,000 and 140,000.

This is a little confusing. You see, Gannett used to own the Star-Bulletin. Then it bought the Advertiser and tried to close down the Star-Bulletin. Antitrust regulators didn’t like that idea, so Gannett had to sell the Star-Bulletin to David Black, who is now the publishing brains behind Platinum Equity, the private firm that bought the San Diego Union Tribune last year. Black bought the Star-Bulletin in 2000 and settled in for a long battle, despite having less than half the circulation of the Advertiser.

It turned out to be a war of attrition. A series of bruising battles with labor unions in which union members at one point actually tried to discourage local businesses from doing business with the Advertiser left Gannett bruised and weakened. While the Advertiser maintained its circulation edge, it continued to lose money. Black told the Advertiser that the Star-Bulletin has lost more than $100 million since 2001. Since Black appeared to be in the race for the long haul, Gannett accepted an offer that the Star-Bulletin publisher characterized as “compelling.”

The bottom line is that Honolulu now becomes a one-paper town and the Advertiser becomes the newest addition to our R.I.P. list.

The Respite Arrives

It was about a year ago that Outsell analyst Ken Doctor (right) told us that the newspaper industry was in for an 18-month respite from its troubles beginning in late 2009. It turns out he was right on the money. Alan Mutter totes up recent financial results from six big publishers and reports that the four-year-long freefall in revenues appears to be slowing. Ad sales for the big six fell 10.2% in the first quarter of 2010 compared to drops of 28.3% last year and 12.8% in 2008. As the smoke clears, the extent of the wreckage becomes apparent, however. Overall newspaper revenues in the US are down more than 46% since 2006 and stand at the lowest level since 1986, Mutter says. But in inflation-adjusted figures, the industry is down an incredible 72% over the last 25 years.

Mutter quotes Gannett President Gracia C. Martore stating confidently that “We are very pleased with the momentum that we had coming out of last year.” It’s hard to believe any industry executive could use the word “pleased” in the context of this crisis. Doctor told us last year that news executives should use this short-term breather to make much-needed changes to their business model, diversify their revenue stream and investing in online properties. Little has happened since then outside of publishers rallying around the brain-dead notion of charging for existing content.

But perhaps they simply have no choice. In weighing in with his own characteristically astute analysis on Nieman Journalism Lab, Doctor notes that while some publishers that were hemorrhaging cash a year ago are now marginally profitable, market conditions provide precious few options for spending that pocket money. Doctor calls 2010 “a year crying out for investment in innovative mobile media product creation and marketing services/advertising infrastructure build-out,” but notes that once-mighty publishing companies must satisfy themselves with sitting on the sidelines and nursing their fragile profits while Google completes an acquisition every month.

The one glimmer of good news is that newspaper publishers are finally making a dent in the massive debt that has hobbled them for the last five years. But that still leaves them little room to do anything new. A year ago, Doctor also predicted that after the 18-month respite ends, the industry will enter another period of severe contraction. We think he’s gonna be right about that prediction, too.

Miscellany

There’s good news in Orange County, Calif., however, were Freedom Communications, which owns the Orange County Register along with 31 other dailies and eight TV stations, has emerged from Chapter 11 with $450 million less debt and new ownership by a private equity firm. Freedom entered a controlled bankruptcy last September while its new owners completed a restructuring plan. The founding Hoiles family had originally been granted a tiny 2% stake in the revitalized company, but they lost that in January, leaving Freedom entirely in the hands of the private equity owners. The company is looking for a full-time CEO, if you’re interested.


There isn’t much room in the market for newsweeklies any more, and the conventional wisdom has been that Time magazine will be the last man standing. Looks like conventional wisdom is right. The Washington Post Co. is reportedly looking to unload Newsweek after three straight years of losses and the likelihood of a fourth. “In the current climate, it might be a better fit elsewhere,” said Post CEO Donald Graham in a statement.

It appears that the Post Co. is not a good fit for the magazine business. Its magazine revenue plunged 27% in 2009 and its operating loss increased to nearly $30 million. The Post redesigned Newsweek and trimmed its circulation by over a million last year in a last-ditch attempt to focus on a narrower and more profitable niche. However, the magazine market is in dismal shape in general, and weeklies have almost no value proposition in an online-driven news world.

Analysts couldn’t even speculate on who might buy Newsweek, other than U.S. News & World Report owner Mortimer Zuckerman, who shows signs of being off his rocker. That may be just the kind of buyer Newsweek needs.


The Wall Street Journal’s campaign to slug it out with The New York Times for national daily supremacy appears to be taking its toll on at least some Journal staffers, who are grumbling about the paper’s failure to secure even a single nomination for a Pulitzer Prize this year. There are all kinds of theories about the snub, ranging from perceived institutional hatred for Rupert Murdoch at Columbia University to the Journal’s focus on breaking news at the expense of long-form journalism to the inherently biased and political process of awarding prizes for non-measurable things like journalism in the first place (our favorite).

One thing’s for sure: The Times is reveling in its three 2009 Pulitzers, as evidenced by this snub from a spokesman: “The readers and employees of the Wall Street Journal deserve much better than this type of juvenile behavior from its editor in chief.” The reference is to recently taunting of the Times by Journal editor Robert Thomson, who has criticized his cross-town rival for being insular and slow.


The publisher of Dan’s Papers, which is the largest-circulation local newspaper on eastern Long Island, filed for bankruptcy, citing the weak real estate advertising market. This is despite the fact that Dan’s Papers claims an average reader household income of $381,000. The real estate market must be really bad, or high-income people must not be reading newspapers or both. Owner Brown Publishing Co., owns 15 dailies, 32 weeklies, 11 business publications, 41 free publications and 51 newspapers or niche websites.


If you’re an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad user who really likes the idea of getting a newspaper look-and-feel in a digital package, you might want to check out PressReader from NewspaperDirect. “If you’ve ever wanted to experience unadulterated newspaper goodness on the iPad, this is it,” the company said in an e-mail. “Cover-to-cover newspaper browsing with one finger. Or two, if you like to zoom in.” Which we do. The company says it delivers more than 1,500 daily newspapers from 90 countries digitally in formats that can be viewed or printed. The iPhone reader is free, so what do you have to lose?

TechCrunch has an interview with Marc Andreessen in which the Internet boy wonder advises media companies to “burn the boats,” an analogy to the instructions Cortés supposedly gave his army upon landing in Mexico nearly 500 years ago in order to insure that the soldiers pressed on.

Print newspapers and magazines will never get [to new online business models], he argues, until they burn the boats and shut down their print operations. Yes, there are still a lot of people and money in those boats—billions of dollars in revenue in some cases. “At risk is 80% of revenues and headcount,” Andreessen acknowledges, “but shift happens.”

Andreessen has a point that it makes senses to abandon failing models in the long term, but setting fire to profitable print operations is the wrong strategy at the moment. After years of fretting over declining circulation and trying desperately to rejuvenate a dying business, newspaper publishers are finally adopting an intelligent strategy. They’re milking all they can from their profitable business while trying to manage it down to a level that new models can take over. It won’t be easy.

The strategy that most publishers have recently adopted has three parts:

  • Raise subscription rates in order to milk as much revenue as possible out of an aging but loyal reader base;
  • Manage costs downward in a manner that preserves profitability without alienating traditional readers;
  • Invest in growth markets that can preserve the brand and generate new profits.

The New York Times reported last year that its second-quarter subscription revenues nearly matched its advertising revenue. Aggressive price increases, combined with a substantial reduction in discounted circulation, are turning paying subscribers into a profit engine. Other publishers are adopting this approach, which is why the seemingly catastrophic declines in circulation of the last couple of years aren’t as devastating as they seem. Many businesses have legacy customers that generate a small but profitable business. Successful long-term franchises, however, also have the skills to move on.

A Successful Online Model

New media news entities have demonstrated that they can earn a profit with about 20% of the revenues of print organizations. That’s because their operating expenses are about 90% lower. These organizations are profitable, but a lot smaller than print publishers.

In their most recent round of earnings reports, most publishers stated that they are now deriving between 12% and 16% of their revenue from online advertising. Most of them have also not done nearly as much as they can to monetize other sources such as events, transaction fees and value-added and classified advertising. Once publishers reach the threshold of 20% online revenue, they can conceivably shutter their print operations while sustaining the business and the brand. They’re trying to get to that threshold gracefully, though. Lots of money can still be made in print if publishers can manage that asset down steadily while reducing costs in lockstep.

That’s a tricky process. If publishers cut costs too deeply, they risk losing loyal print subscribers and circulation revenue could enter a free-fall. They also don’t have the luxury of much time to complete the transition.

Even harder is the third bullet point. The people who run newspapers are skilled at operations and asset management, not visionary investments in emerging markets. In the TechCrunch interview, Andreessen correctly points out that technology companies are adept at dealing with constant disruption to their markets, a situation that faces Microsoft right now. Successful technology companies manage this challenge through a kind of creative destruction process. Successful executives are experts at learning to identify new opportunities and quickly discarding old product lines without looking back.

However, technology companies don’t have the luxury of a loyal legacy base that newspaper publishers have. The audience of committed daily readers may still buy the newspaper industry another 10 years of life in print, although that business will eventually become unsustainable. It isn’t crazy for publishers to want to milk the cash cow for a few more years. The hard part is finding new opportunities and having the stomach to invest in them in the face of inevitable shareholder demands for greater profits.

Burning the boats isn’t a wise strategy at the moment. But it’s a good idea to start collecting firewood.


Newspaper executives and their largest advertisers will gather next month in Orlando to discuss the transition to a digital media world. Advertisers in attendance include Staples Inc., Walgreens, Best Buy,  Home Depot, RadioShack, Target and many other print media veterans.

It’s good to see the industry tackling its challenges head on, but we have to wonder if this is the right crowd to do it. Nearly every person in the room will have a career and a business built on a crumbling advertising model. It seems unlikely that much innovation will flourish in that atmosphere. And if you believe what people like Mark Potts and Steve Outing are saying, then the future of these companies is about diversifying revenue and cultivating local advertisers, not finding new ways to squeeze more blood from the display advertising stone.. Meanwhile, the agenda is packed with speakers from the newspaper industry. We trust Huffington Post wasn’t invited.


Meanwhile, Outsell has a new report predicting that US companies will spend more on digital marketing than print for the first time ever this year. Of the $368 billion that Outsell expects US advertisers to spend this year, roughly $120 billion will be spent online and $111 in print. Of the total online spending, 53% will be on company websites. Outsell expects print newspaper ad spending to drop 8.2% to $27 billion. The report costs $1,295. More here.

And Finally…

The folks who brought you the wonderful Fail Blog have aggregated some of their best media miscues into Probably Bad News, a site whose tagline is “News Fails, because journalism isn’t dying fast enough.”You can upload your own favorite typos, double entendres and acts of sheer stupidity for others to vote upon. Many of the examples are computers gone haywire, which lack the sheer hilarity of printed mistakes, in our view. But there’s some good stuff there, anyway.


Dan Bloom has been pushing the idea of renaming newspapers “snailpapers.” He’s put the cause to music. It’s six-and-a-half-minutes of countrified banjo-picking. Watch it if you can.

Publishers who cheered The New York Times decision last week to build up a wall in front of its content should be considerably less cheery about the news emanating from Newsday. The Long Island daily has admitted that it has signed up just 35 paying subscribers since it put most of its content behind a pay wall in October. At $260 per subscriber per year, that amounts to just $9,000 in annualized revenue for a relaunch that reportedly cost $4 million.

There’s more to the story, of course. The total audience of potential online subscribers to Newsday is pretty small, given that the service is free to subscribers to Optimum Cable, which is owned by Cablevision. Cablevision bought Newsday for $650 million in May, 2008 after a bidding war. Newsday said Optimum Cable cover 75% of Long Island, meaning that just about everyone who would want to read Newsday online can already read it. The company also said  its goal was never to amass a huge audience but rather to increase engagement and improve advertiser value by focusing on local residents.

Still, you have to wonder about the wisdom of the paywall strategy, given the sacrifices  made to implement it. Editors Weblog says traffic to the site is down by a third since October. However, PaidContent.org says the drop off is only on the order of 10%. Either way, Newsday has traded off a lot of eyeballs for a small number of credit card numbers and unless its advertising rates have increased proportionately, the paywall is probably a net loser at this point.

Newsday is sticking by its guns and saying that the slow ramp up is neither surprising nor a problem. “Given the number of households in our market that have access to Newsday‘s web site as a result of other subscriptions, it is no surprise that a relatively modest number have chosen the pay option,” the company said in a statement that called into question why such a strategy was desirable in the first place.

Give Newsday credit for being a pioneer, though. The industry has been buzzing about paywalls for the last year and the company at least had the cojones to do something.  You do have to wonder about the timing, though. Publisher Terry Jimenez reportedly told the staff last week that Newsday lost $7 million in the first three quarters of last year. It’s now embroiled in a labor dispute with unions that are refusing to accept a 10% pay cut. under the circumstances, this seems like an odd time to make a bet-the-business decision.

iPad is Here. You Can Breathe Again

Our reaction to Apple’s iPad announcement yesterday was summed up in our tweet: “It’s a big iPod Touch? Really? That’s it??”

For a product that was generating over 200 tweets per minute in the hours leading up to the launch event, the reality of the iPad underwhelmed us. Perhaps we’ve just learned to expect bigger things from Apple (although the iPad certainly is bigger than the iPhone – by several inches).

The commentators we read see more potential, however. Nicholas Carr, who’s been documenting the shift of data and applications from the desktop to the cloud, sees the iPad as a potential paradigm shift. In Carr’s view, this product completes the transformation of the end-user device from personal computer to window on the Internet. Unlike a laptop, the iPad relies upon software delivered over the Internet for most of its functionality. The large screen and persistent connection could change user behavior, he observes. People will get into the habit of expecting words, images and sound to be delivered whenever they need it in a slim device that fits in a briefcase, although not a purse.

Ken Doctor evaluates the pluses and minuses of yesterday’s announcement. The good news for publishers is that readers will finally carry around a device that delivers an experience similar to what they have traditionally received from a magazine or tabloid newspaper. That can’t be bad for publishers who are accustomed to working in that format. Doctor also sees the iPad as a “magnet for marketing dollars” from companies that can finally deliver a television-like experience to a handheld device. The tablet may also rejuvenate long-form reading, which has suffered as continually distracted readers have learned to consume information in sips rather than draughts.

Doctor worries, however, that media companies were not a bigger part of the launch. Apple seemed to play it safe, touting the iPad as a work machine but imbuing it with a clumsy virtual keyboard and incorporating features that will obviously be appealing to gamers. The company claims to have more than 140,000 applications in its iTunes store. Publishers who are accustomed to having the biggest brand in their markets are going to get lost in there unless Apple pulls them out of the muck and gives them some visibility. At least at this point, that isn’t happening.

David Coursey looks at the iPad from more of a technologist’s perspective with Six Reasons You Want an iPad, Six Reasons You Don’t. He notes, “Apple wants you to pay $829 for the 64GB device, plus monthly wireless fees for AT&T’s 3G. The first year total: $1,189.” Of course, the iPhone was also vastly overpriced when first announced.

Meanwhile, Amazon last week revised its royalty policy for self-published authors and small presses. Amazon could be ready to make a play for the loyalty of publishers who were shut out of the Apple party. Its licensing terms need to be friendlier, but it’s already showing a willingness to make those changes.


By the way, Ken Doctor’s new book, Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get, will be available next week. We just received our review copy in the mail and while we haven’t had a chance to pore through it yet, we’re confident will contribute important new insights on the transformation of news from print to digital format.

Miscellany

Publishers that seemed to be ready for the toe tag at this time last year are staging some remarkable comebacks. Following hot on the heels of MediaNews Group Inc.’s announcement last week that it will enter a controlled bankruptcy and quickly reemerge in better condition, McClatchy said it has reached a debt restructuring deal with its creditors that will give it more time to get its debts under control. The owner of the Miami Herald, Sacramento Bee,  Kansas City Star and 27 other dailies has shifted its obligations to extend its repayment deadlines for a couple of years and says that 90% of its creditors have agreed to the plan. Year-over-year revenue is still falling at an alarming rate of 20%, but McClatchy said the rate of decline has slowed and it is getting its expenses under control. Its stock closed at $5.60 yesterday, up 1,600% from its 2009 low of 35 cents. Don’t you wish you could turn back the clock?


The good news in McClatchy’s shrinking revenue is that the percentage coming from online sources has grown. CEO Gary Pruitt told an investor conference call yesterday that online advertising now makes up 16% of the company’s total revenues. Perhaps more importantly, Pruitt said that 44% of digital revenue is online-only, meaning that the company is having success seeking out new advertisers and not simply selling discounted Web packages to print customers. He also said the company is ready to experiment with a pay wall, but is looking to the New York Times example for guidance.


Young people are reading newspapers online less than they used to. That’s the finding of an
IBM survey of 3,327 people internationally (900 of them in the United States) as reported on Poynter last week. The good news is that people over 55 are increasing their consumption of online news, but that statistic disguises a more ominous trend. Overall consumption of online sources is up for the population as a whole, which presumably means fewer people are getting their news in print. Poynter’s Dorian Benkoil says the trend suggests that news organizations may have less time than they think to shift their strategies to a digital-first approach. separately, new research from Nielsen shows that consumers spent an average of five hours and 35 minutes on social networking sites in December, 2009, an increase of 82% from December 2008. Facebook is now second only to the telephone in the medium people use most often to reach out to friends and family, and it isn’t behind by much. The problem that creates for news organizations is that they can’t control what happens on Facebook but clearly must adopt strategies to deliver more information that way.

By Paul Gillin | November 23, 2009 - 10:34 am - Posted in Advertising, Business News, BusinessModel, Circulation, Demographics, Murdoch, NewMedia, Newspapers

The dismal circulation figures reported by the US newspaper industry a couple of weeks ago may actually have been optimistic. There’s new evidence that many publishers took advantage of recent changes to Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) rules to actually overstate their real readership numbers. The blogosphere is having a field day with this one.

The catalyst was this AP piece that points out that changes adopted by the ABC seven months ago now enable publishers to count “bundled” subscriptions of paid and online editions as two subscribers, even if only one person is doing the reading. This continues recent trends by the bureau to loosen rules and give its publisher customers more flexibility to pump up their numbers. In the spring of 2008, for example, the ABC made it possible for publishers to declare as paid circulation copies that sell for as little as a penny.

The AP story doesn’t pinpoint how many news organizations benefited from the rules change in the most recent reporting period, but notes that 59 newspapers counted at least 5,000 electronic editions in their weekday circulations. If those numbers were backed out, the record 10.6% drop in the most recent six-month period would probably have been even worse. The story cites several examples of papers that showed declines in print subscribers but were still able to post circulation increases by counting delivery of electronic editions.

However, numbers games don’t fool anybody in the world in which smart people with spreadsheets can quickly analyze them. As Mark Potts points out, “Fudging the numbers may make internal constituencies happy, but they’ll bite you in the long run. Advertisers can count, too.” In other words, you can slice the numbers any way you want, but it doesn’t count for a hill of beans if customers don’t come in the door.

Electronic editions are basically digital versions of the print product that readers can download for the sake of convenience, ecology or availability. Jim Brady tweets wryly, “Nothing shows that you ‘get’ digital more than trying to deliver it to people in exactly the same form it appears in print.”

The circulation gains are part of a broader campaign by publishers to distract people from the reality of plunging circulation and ad revenue. Scarborough Research released a much-cited report recently that documented that 74% of American adults read a paper in print or online during the past week. These statistics look impressive, but qualifiers like “adult” and “in print or online” color the numbers. The newspaper industry has largely lost the youth market and online distribution is a mixed blessing at best.

Publishers are playing numbers games of their own. Mark Hamilton notes that the industry has largely abandoned circulation figures in favor of research-driven readership numbers that report the number of people who have read or looked into a newspaper in the past seven days. These figures serve to buttress the argument that newspapers are still a core element of American life while obfuscating the fact that subscribership is down.

And even large circulation numbers don’t equal business success. Alan Mutter contrasts the circulation strategies of two Bay Area publishers: Hearst’s San Francisco Chronicle and MediaNews Group. The Chron has all but abandoned discount circulation in a quest to cut its operating losses and drive circ revenue to 45% of total sales next year. MediaNews is taking the opposite course. It has used aggressive discounting to become the most widely circulated publisher in the area. The combined circulation of MediaNews papers in the region is now nearly triple the Chron’s. MediaNews president Jody Lodovic calls his strategy a long-term view, but is junk circulation good for anybody? The Chronicle‘s strategy is to stabilize its business, which may be a more rational plan in an unpredictable economy.

Whatever the numbers, advertisers are speaking more loudly with their dollars. US newspaper advertising revenue fell by nearly 28 percent in the third quarter from $8.9 billion to $6.4 billion. If you extrapolate that out to a full year, the US newspaper industry has shrunk by nearly half since 2006, when it reported $49.2 billion in revenue. The AP quotes Newspaper Association of America (NAA) president John Sturm positioning the figures in the context of a dismal economy, but it’s hard to find any bright spots when even online advertising was off 17%.

Miscellany

All may not be lost for the East Valley Tribune, which earlier this month announced plans to shut down at the end of the year. The paper reported on Friday that an unnamed buyer has emerged who plans to keep the paper operating both in print and online. The buyer also plans to keep a “substantial” number of Tribune employees on the payroll. There were no other details. Freedom Communications, which owns the Tribune, has been seeking a buyer since early this year, but no serious offers emerge prior to a Sept. 1 bankruptcy filing. In fact, Freedom’s chief financial officer said one bidder offered to take over the business only if Freedom paid him to do so


Count Twitter cofounder Biz Stone among the army of skeptics about Rupert Murdoch’s plans to remove News Corp. properties from Google’s search index. Saying Murdoch’s scheme is likely to “fail fast,” Stone told a London audience that the Australian media magnate should instead focus on “how to make a ton of money out of being radically open rather than some money by being ridiculously closed”. He suggested that Twitter’s crowdsourced model offer some opportunities and that the company would be willing to work with newspaper publishers. Twitter executives also said last week that the service will soon announce a plan to start making money off of the estimated 60 million members it has acquired.

And Finally…

Ed Padgett pointed us to this clever music video by Christopher Ave, the political editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who isn’t a copy editor but who is sympathetic to the plight of wordsmiths around the country who are falling victim to layoffs. The slick production, which looks like it was recorded in a newsroom, includes the following refrain:

I was there to fix your grammar
When you thought it wouldn’t matter
Cut all your extraneous blather down

AP Stylebook is my bible
Helped me stop a suit for libel
But nothing ensures my survival now

And I don’t know what I’ll do
After I am through
Killing my last adjective

Mallary Jean Tenore tells the story behind the video on Poynter Online. It has less than 800 views, so go visit it and add to its five-star rating.

We’d like to be able to close out the week on a happier note, but the evidence that newspaper executives and union leaders have no friggin’ clue about the enormity of the challenges facing them just keeps on coming. Consider:

Newspaper layoffs have hit young people the hardest, according to a survey by the Associated Press Managing Editors. The survey of 95 editors found that newsroom staffs have shrunk more than 10% in the last year and that workers between the ages of 18 and 35 were the most likely to be shown the door. This information comes at a time when newspapers are desperately struggling to become relevant to precisely that age group. It’s not that the editors want to lay off all the young staff, but union rules require them to preserve the jobs of older – and more change-averse – employees at the expense of younger and cheaper workers. We like Silicon Alley’s graphic accompanying this story. It shows a man aiming a revolver at his foot.

Ken Doctor of Outsell has a new report on the state of newspaper companies’ digital migration efforts and he comes to some pretty bleak conclusions. Newspapers derived just 11% of their revenues from digital sources in 2008, Doctor found. In comparison, the rest of the information industry gets 70% of its revenue online. In other words, the specialty publishing markets have substantially completed their migration to digital business models while newspapers are just beginning.

It gets worse. Online revenue for newspapers is now static or declining while it’s growing nearly everywhere else. And all the major publishers except Dow Jones are losing market share. “The news segment still stands out as the biggest laggard in the information industry overall,” Doctor says. Listen to our August interview with Doctor.

Miscellany

The number of reporters on Capitol Hill isn’t declining, but the profile is changing. There were 819 accredited reporters from mainstream US newspapers and wire services on the Hill in 2009, a decline of 193 – or 19% – from the previous year, according to the Pew Research Center. However, the gap is being filled by reporters from niche and specialty publications. There were 500 of them in the galleries this year, up from 335 a decade ago. As a result, the full Washington press corps has remained fairly stable at between 1,300 and 1,500 souls over the last 20 years. It’s just that newspapers now make up less than half the total, compared to two-thirds a decade ago.


The authors of the study note that ordinary Joes are privy to less and less information about their government, while well-heeled business types can afford to finance on-site reportage that keeps them in the lobbying loop. And the advantage isn’t limited to conservative business interests. “The Washington bureau of Mother Jones, a San Francisco-based, left-leaning non-profit magazine, which had no reporters permanently assigned to the nation’s capital a decade ago, today has seven, about the same size as the now-reduced Time magazine bureau,” the study notes.


The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is the latest newspaper to jump on the pay-wall bandwagon. Its new PG+ section went live this week, offering bonus features like “social networking, live chats, videos, blogs and behind-the-scenes” look at the daily news,” according to president Christopher H. Chamberlain. Standard daily fare will remain free, but for $3.99/month or $36/year, readers will get exclusive access to the thoughts of Steelers reporter Ed Bouchette, as well as undefined special offers. We’ll see. You can tour the “PG+ Experience” here.


The folks at North America’s largest French-language daily must have liked what they saw in Boston, where The New York Times Co. successfully stared down unions at the Boston Globe and won significant cost reductions. Montreal’s La Presse will shut down Dec. 1 if the newspaper’s eight unions don’t help it cut $26 million in operating expenses. Among the concessions management is seeking are the end of a four-day work week for full-time pay and elimination of as many as 100 of the 700 jobs at the newspaper. The union says it’s open to discussion if it can see the paper’s books. La Presse cut out Sunday publication earlier this year in order to save money.