By Paul Gillin | January 3, 2014 - 4:51 pm - Posted in Business News, Local news, Newspapers, R.I.P.

NorthAdamsTranscriptThe North Adams Transcript, a daily fixture in northwestern Massachusetts since 1843, will be merged into the larger Berkshire Eagle later this month. The Transcript name will be discontinued and its five-person full-time editorial staff will join the Eagle. A sister weekly newspaper, the Advocate, will also be folded.

While putting the usual happy face on the announcement, management did provide a rationale for the move: “Publishing two daily newspapers that cover the same market – literally, they overlap – no longer makes sound business sense when one accounts for the duplicate efforts and redundancy in the processes involved in producing, delivering and servicing two newspapers that share the same mission,” wrote Publisher Kevin Corrado and News VP Kevin Moran in a joint message to readers.

The Transcript is  one of four Massachusetts newspapers owned by MediaNews Group of Colorado, which is one of the largest newspaper publishers in the U.S. The company is known for its practice of buying multiple newspapers in the same region and centralizing production, ad sales, business operations and even editorial operations to cut costs. Some former staffers have complained that MediaNews sacrifices journalistic quality for the sake of profits.

In this case, however, the merger probably make sense. The Berkshires are the most rural area of Massachusetts, and with readership declining across the industry the wisdom of maintaining overlapping titles would be questionable. Fortunately, no reporting jobs were lost.

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By Paul Gillin | August 19, 2013 - 9:50 am - Posted in Business News, BusinessModel, Local news, Newspapers, Paywalls, Solutions

The San Francisco Chronicle is removing its paywall after just four months and the Dallas Morning News plans to follow suit. Observers are speculating that this could be the end of the nearly two-year-old binge that has seen more than one-third of U.S. newspapers erect barriers to their online content.

Neither company is abandoning the idea of gated content entirely, but both are reportedly pursuing new models based on premium services. That’s basically a reversal of the paywall formula. The premium-service model is aimed at monetizing a small part of the audience while a paywall denies service to everyone except those willing to pay. We think this amounts to a concession from both papers that paywalls are ineffective in their geographies.

San Francisco is a particularly tough place to make a paywall work, with its abundance of media and its tech-savvy audience. Also, the Chron isn’t exactly The New York Times of the west coast. In our view, it was a mediocre newspaper before cutting more than half its staff over the last few years.

All the Chronicle content will now be available on SFGate.com. What content will remain paid? A vaguely worded message from the new publisher and president said the paid SFChronicle.com site “will continue to provide readers with an online version that replicates a newspaper experience and reflects the changes in the news throughout the day.”

Replicating the newspaper experience online is a non-starter. We assume they’re working on better ideas.

The premium content model that the Chron and Dallas Morning News reportedly hope to implement is difficult to pull off. It has worked for ESPN, Cooks Illustrated, Consumer Reports and a number of financial publishers, but we’re not aware of any successes in the general news market. The premium model works best with investor audiences or those who are passionate, affluent and have an insatiable thirst for knowledge about a topic. None of those characteristics applies to local news.

It could be that San Francisco and Dallas are just early indicators that paywalls are not a good strategy for most newspapers. If so, we’ll know soon. Many publishers are coming up on their first year of experience, and they’ll have both the data and the experience to make a decision.

Bezos-Watching

Jeff Bezos

If you need any further evidence that Jeff Bezos is the Lady Gaga of media-watching, look no further than this roundup on Nieman Journalism Lab. Everyone is speculating about what the Amazon.com founder plans to do, but Bezos himself is offering few clues. We didn’t read everything Nieman’s Mark Coddington found, but we did peruse a few analyses.

A profile in The New York Times highlights the paradox of Bezos’ interest in being a media magnate, given that Amazon is an extremely secretive company. “There are fewer leaks out of Amazon than the National Security Agency,” write David Streitfeld and Christine Haughney.

What little we know of Amazon comes from its famously vague quarterly analyst calls. Outsiders are rarely permitted to tour its buildings and even its own executives don’t know where all its data centers are located. Bezos himself makes few public appearances and keeps a low profile in his hometown of Seattle.

So why does he now want to carry the First Amendment flag in our nation’s capitol? Ken Doctor sees three reasons why he and other super-rich people are buying into newspapers: Low valuations, a call of duty and the hubris to believe they can turn around an industry everyone thinks is dying. Also, no one else is willing to do it. “The few remaining people with the stomach to run daily newspapers have bank accounts with at least nine zeros after a non-zero numeral of some kind,” he writes at Nieman.

Kudos to Doctor for reminding us of EPIC 2014, a vaguely creepy spoof video made in 2004 that forecast the emergence of a media Death Star created by the merger of Amazon and Google in 2014. Some of the parallels are striking (watch below).

Writer and futurist Tim Carmody says he’s studied Bezos for years and believes the Amazon founder is driven by a fascination with the future and the urge to leave something behind other than the company he runs. Carmody also has interesting details about the sale of the Post, which appears to have been more a coincidence than a plan. “By all accounts, Bezos did not go looking to buy a newspaper,” he writes. “When he was approached by his friend Donald Graham about buying the Post, he initially begged off considering it.” It was Graham who pushed the deal more than Bezos sought it.

A few consistent threads run through the accounts we read. One is that Bezos is intensely focused on customer experience. The Times relates the story of how Amazon stationed ambulances outside its Allentown, Pa. warehouse during a heat wave rather than turn up the air conditioning or reduce the workload for its employees. Meeting shipping deadlines was more important than the health of its notoriously overworked fulfillment staff.

A second is that Bezos is a long-term thinker who aims high. Whereas many entrepreneurs would have been satisfied to build the world’s largest online bookseller, Bezos has set his sights on becoming an infrastructure powerhouse that can deliver goods and services physically or virtually anywhere in the world. The newspaper industry could benefit from this kind of vision right now.

The third is that Bezos is an unpredictable experimenter who disdains the status quo. It’s a given that he will ruffle feathers among his conservative colleagues in the publishing ranks. Again, not a bad thing.

There are also conflicts of interest that will merit scrutiny. The biggest is Amazon Web Services, a contract data center operation that hosts thousands of large research and commercial entities, including more than 500 government institutions. It’s Amazon’s fastest-growing business, and the government market is a huge opportunity.

Will Bezos be able to balance his dual role as free press agitator and major government contractor? Most people seem to think so. As the Times’ headline summed up:  “Expect the Unexpected.”

 

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By Paul Gillin | August 9, 2013 - 7:59 am - Posted in Business News, Local news, Newspapers

Several news outlets are reporting that AOL will shut down one-third of its Patch network of hyperlocal news sites and lay off about 300 people today. Newsday says AOL will close about 300 of its 900 sites and TechCrunch says layoff totals could reach 550. It’s unclear how large the Patch workforce is, but the last figure we saw was about 900.

A lot of reasons are being cited for Patch’s failure to get traction, ranging from competition from local newspapers to a crummy content management system. “Patch has gone from being free-wheeling to overly controlling with its local editors and then back and forth between the two,” writes TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm.

Our local Patch is run very well. Susan Petroni, a former daily newspaper reporter, covers the town so efficiently on a shoestring budget that her Patch site regularly scoops the local daily newspaper. However, the site is an unholy mess to look at, with ads and editorial content intermingled with each other seemingly at random. And Petroni’s discipline may not be typical. See  the comment titled “A PATCH INTERN’S STORY” on Romenesko for a more cynical view.

Patch has been dragging down AOL earnings since it launched, and CEO Tim Armstrong has pledged to make the network profitable by the end of this year or shut it down. It looks like this is a last-gasp effort to break even.


Update: Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that AOL will replace the head of the Patch divison and close or find partners for 400 of its community websites. The exact number of layoffs is still undetermined, but it appears it will be at the high end of the 300-550 positions that were rumored earlier today.

 

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By Paul Gillin | August 3, 2013 - 10:08 am - Posted in Business News, Local news, Newspapers

John W. Henry

Four years of turmoil appear to be nearing an end in Boston with news that billionaire financier and Red Sox owner John Henry will buy the Globe for $70 million.

The deal came quickly after Henry’s bid to purchase the Globe through a partnership was rejected early this week. On Thursday, Henry said he would go it alone. Hours later, the deal was done.

The news is good for the paper and for the city, both of which struggled through an agonizing showdown between The New York Times Co., which owns the Globe, and the newspaper’s unions in 2009. The Times Co. threatened to shut down the Globe at the time unless significant concessions were made, including the end of a lifetime employment deal that had been extended to more than 100 Globe employees in the 1990s.

After a two-month standoff, the unions caved in and agreed to terms that were actually less favorable than the Times Co.’s original offer. Since then the Globe has reportedly stabilized itself financially. The owners announced that the paper was for sale early this year. The $70 million sale price actually indicates some appreciation in the Globe‘s value over the past four years. When the paper was originally put up for sale in 2009, the Times Co. was reported to be considering offers of as little as $25 million. It paid $1.1 billion for the Globe in 1993, but has extracted more than the original purchase price in cash over 20 years.

Henry is somewhat of a local hero in Boston. A hedge fund manager with a brilliant analytical mind, he purchased the Red Sox in 2002 with two partners (one of which was The New York Times Co.) and put in place a new front office that led the team to its first World Series victory in 86 years in 2004. Henry also has stakes in  the New England Sports Network, the Liverpool Soccer Club and the Roush Fenway NASCAR racing team. He lives in nearby Brookline.

His decision to keep the Red Sox in Fenway Park instead of moving to a larger and more lucrative new stadium has been controversial, but the team’s on-field performance has quieted the critics. Henry has shown more of a tendency to invest than to cut costs. In a prepared statement, he said the region “needs a strong, sustainable Boston Globe playing an integral role in the community’s long-term future.”

Henry also gets Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com in the deal. Boston.com was one of the first newspaper-owned websites to feature a strong regional focus. However, it lost its uniqueness as the Globe‘s partners in the joint venture fell away over the years. The Globe relaunched Boston.com last year with a stronger Boston voice while breaking out BostonGlobe.com as the newspaper’s online flagship and its first paywalled property.

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Freedom Communications' Aaron Kushner (photo by Jebb Harris, Orange County Register).

Freedom Communications’ Aaron Kushner (photo by Jebb Harris, Orange County Register).

California newspaper defies industry wisdom to stay alive – and prospers” declares The Guardian in an analysis of the Orange County Register‘s death-defying experiment under the leadership of a former greeting card executive with no background in newspapers.

Aaron Kushner (right) and his partner, Eric Spitz, formed Freedom Communications and bought the Register a year ago. They then stunned the shell-shocked newspaper industry by declaring their intention to go completely against the prevailing practice of layoffs and cost cuts. They would invest in print, double their reporting staff,  increase subscription prices and  put up one of the industry’s most rigid barriers to online access.

They’ve kept their promise. Newsroom staff is up to 360 from a low of 180 when Freedom took over. The Register routinely publishes daily issues that are nearly twice the size of its nearby rival, the Los Angeles Times. Page counts have been increased by half, color expanded and even the quality of paper improved.

Daily circulation is holding steady and total circulation is up sharply if you include the 28 weekly papers the company has invested in over the last 12 months. The Register has hired investigative reporters and lured newspaper wunderkind Rob Curley out of exile to rejuvenate the editorial product with a focus on local news and practical advice.

Freedom is showing particular sensitivity to  local businesses. One promotion late last year gave each reader the opportunity to contribute $100 worth of advertising to his or her favorite charity. Some 1,300 nonprofits benefited from the program.

Kushner thinks the time is right to place a big bet on print. “Never before and never again will so many people be in the sweet spot of newspaper readership as the next 20 years,” he told the Guardian. “It’s called the baby boom.”

There’s no doubt the Register is growing, but is it prospering as the Guardian‘s headline proclaims? The jury is still out on that.

Ken Doctor ran the numbers back in January and concluded that the Register may be able to cover its estimated $9 million+ in additional annual costs through higher subscription fees, but that the advertising market is in long-term decline and there’s little that any newspaper can do about that. Doctor contrasted Kushner’s growth strategy with the slash-and-burn tactics being applied by Advance Communications and said we’ll know in about two years whether growth or contraction is the recipe for success. Clearly, we’re pulling for Kushner.

Writing on CJR.com in May, Ryan Chittum said the odds are against Kushner, but noted that if he fails, “he will have gone down investing in journalism.” Chittum also has some revealing stats about the profitability of newspapers, which remains quite strong. When newspapers shut down, it’s because they can’t afford the cost of their debt, he says. Most are still in the black on an operations basis, which makes Advance’s frequency cutback strategy all the more puzzling.  It also suggests that value investor Warren Buffett  isn’t a billionaire for nothing.

Kushner says he’s in it for the long haul and he now has his eyes on a bigger prize: the L.A. Times. Tribune Co. is going to be looking to unload some assets now that it has exited bankruptcy, and many observers believe the Times will be on the auction block. If Kushner buys it, he can all but own the southern California market. Regardless of the  current fortunes of daily newspapers, having a  near-monopoly on even a shrinking media business in the country’s largest media market has to be attractive.

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How are the experiments in reduced frequency that began in Detroit more than four years ago and have since spread to Cleveland, Syracuse, New Orleans and now Portland working out? Not so well, says author and J-school professor John K. Hartman.

Writing on Editor & Publisher‘s website, Hartman says the most from seven-day to three-day home delivery has caused massive subscriber flight and forced publishers to quietly backtrack. Newhouse, which is cutting frequencies across its line of dailies, has already had to introduce a new tabloid to produce on the days the Times-Picayune doesn’t publish.

Hartman blames greed. He accuses Newhouse of sabotaging journalism at the papers it own in the name of maximizing profits for the Newhouse family.

Newhouse is saving big money by eliminating news staff, eliminating office staff, eliminating delivery staff, and eliminating delivery expenses. In other words, Newhouse is getting out of the daily newspaper business and into the tri-weekly advertising shopper business.

We didn’t know this, but Hartman says the Detroit Free Press and News have re-introduced daily delivery to about 15,000 homes. The experiment, which was positioned as a “bold transformation” in December, 2008,

lost so many readers they had to beef up their non-delivery-day newspapers and restore limited seven-day home delivery. The Free Press now offers home delivery to 15,000 households through independent contractors the other four days a week. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of readers of the print products were lost in Detroit, and the projected switch of readers and advertisers to digital sites has not taken place.

Continuing a newspaper industry tradition of burying bad news about its business, The Oregonian announced that it will scale back home-delivery frequency from seven to four days a week.

The news is tucked into the fourth paragraph of an otherwise effusive press release on Oregon Live that crows about the launch of a new company that will “expand news and information products in Oregon and Southwest Washington” and “introduce new and improved digital products.”

In reality, the main purpose of the new company over the next few months will be to hire survivors from Oregonian Publishing Co. which produces the state’s largest and longest continuously published newspaper. That company will close on Oct. 1. Oregonian write Brent Hunsberger provides balanced coverage – and leads with the real news.

Like newspapers in Detroit, the The Oregonian will continue to publish in print seven days a week but will limit distribution of Monday, Tuesday and Thursday editions to city newsstands. Its 170,000 home subscribers will see deliveries cut to Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. In a baffling bit of doublespeak, the company also said home-delivery subscribers would get a Saturday edition “as a bonus.” It also stressed that the “Wednesday, Friday and Sunday editions will be enhanced with more content than current editions while the Saturday newspaper will have news and a strong emphasis on sports content, along with classified advertising.” In other words, a cut of 50% is an improvement.

The bigger story is that there will be unspecific but “significant” layoffs at The Oregonian, which currently employs 650 people. The paper, which has won seven Pulitzer Prizes and five since 1999, employs more than 90 journalists according to Hunsberger’s account. However, Ryan Chittum thinks the editorial cuts have been more severe. Writing on CJR.com, Chittum estimates that the newsroom staff has declined from about 315 in 2007 to 175 today. His assessment is blunt:

[Advance Publications'] new template for its newspapers is now depressingly familiar: End daily delivery; fire a third to a half of the veteran journalists, particularly the editors, particularly in news; replace some of them with young, inexperienced (and most important: cheap) labor; put them on the hamster wheel; toss around insipid buzzwords; spend a bunch of money on new offices; piss off readers; embolden competition.

Seems about right. Chittum also notes that Advance Publications’ cutbacks at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans backfired when a competitor from Baton Rouge moved in to take advantage of subscriber unrest. Advance has had to respond with a tabloid edition on days the Times-Picayune doesn’t publish, thereby negating many of its cost savings. Advance has said that it will make similar frequency cutbacks across its portfolio.

Oregon journalists are already rushing in to show their support. Former Oregonian reporter Ryan Frank has taken to social media to raise funds for a bar tab for laid-off staffers. He’s already raised more than $3,000. Follow the fund’s progress at #OregonianBarTab on Twitter. And give generously.

Thanks to Brian Parks for tipping us off to this news.

 

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The Pew Research Center’s annual State of the Media Report paints a dismal picture of the condition of mainstream media – in particular broadcast and magazines – but Slate’s . Which side are you on?

There’s no question that Pew’s annual media audit and survey of 2,000 consumers is about as depressing as any of the 10 annual reports that the nonprofit media watchdog has completed. Among the lowlights:

  • Nearly a third of U.S. adults have stopped using a news outlet because it no longer met their needs.
  • That’s not surprising when you consider that low-cost sports, weather and traffic information now account for 40% of the content produced on the average local newscast.
  • The population of full-time professional newsroom employees fell below 40,000 for the first time since 1978. It’s down nearly 30% from its 1989 high.
  • In an election year, the declines in coverage were particularly evident. Live broadcast reports fell from from 33% of the news hole in 2007 to 23% in 2012. And 2007 was not an election year. Commentary and opinion, which are cheap to produce, now make up 63% of  news airtime on cable channels, while straight news reporting comprises only 37%.
  • An examination of 48 recent evening and morning newscasts found that 20 led with a weather-related story. Weather coverage is cheap.
  • Only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists, while twice that many came from political partisans. The report runs down a list of informational websites that political parties and advocacy groups have set up to influence media, but some are now actually becoming the media. Pew notes several examples of major news magazines that have carried partisan reports as part of their branded news stream.
  • In that vein, Pew notes a 2008 analysis of Census Bureau data by Robert McChesney and John Nichols that found that the ratio of public relations workers to journalists tripled from 1.2-to-1 in 1980 to 3.6-to-1 in 2008. That gap has likely grown since then.
  • In summary, “News organizations are less equipped to question what is coming to them or to uncover the stories themselves, and interest groups are better equipped and have more technological tools than ever,” Pew states.
  • Incredibly (to us, at least), the public is mostly unaware that the news media is struggling. Only 39% of the 2,000 consumers surveyed said they have much awareness of the industry’s problems.

Mainstream media percentage change in ad revenue 2011-2012

Newspapers actually come off pretty well in this year’s report. Thanks to paywalls, which are in place or in the works at one-third of U.S. newspapers, circulation held steady year-to-year. The New York Times said its circulation revenue now exceeds advertising revenue for the first time.

Warren Buffett speaking to a group of students...

Warren Buffett (source: Wikipedia)

However, the long-term trends are still negative. Newspapers lose $16 in print ad revenue for every $1 in digital ad revenue gained, and that figure is up from $10-to-$1 in 2011. Equally ominous is that Facebook and Google are doing a better job of figuring out how to target digital advertising locally, which threatens one of the few pockets of revenue strength newspapers have left.

Because the long-term outlook is so bad, newspapers have become an attractive investment vehicle. Pew notes that value investor Warren Buffett has been snapping them up at a rapid clip because they are so cheap. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News were bought for $55 million last year, which is 1/10 of the price they commanded in 2006.

Out of Mind

Perhaps the most surprising finding is the low public awareness of the news industry’s crisis, and that’s where Yglesias’ analysis on Slate is most interesting. “American news media has never been in better shape,” he states at the outset, using the Cypriot economic crisis as proof. We’re not sure the media itself is in great shape, but readers are doing fine.

Yglesias cites a “bounty” of online resources that provide context, analysis and even an interactive calculator that lets visitors try out different ideas for solving the island nation’s financial problems. It’s easier than ever to produce news using public sources and simple publishing tools, and the Internet makes boundless background information available in seconds.

Assessing the state of media by looking only at the health of traditional outlets creates “a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers,” he writes. “[T]oday’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read.”

The finding that only four in 10 Americans are even aware of the media’s struggles can be interpreted in several ways. The pessimistic view is that Americans are basically dumb, lazy and happy with the partisan screaming matches that characterize a lot of broadcast news.

A more positive view is that Americans have already moved on to using other sources and haven’t noticed the loss of their once-trusted brands. It’s impossible to know without further research, but we have to acknowledge Yglesias’s point that the decline of mainstream media certainly hasn’t resulted in a dearth of information.

No Expiration

One important point the Slate business writer makes is that news no longer carries an expiration date. Traditional media assumed that news would be consumed within a few hours or days. Archival or background information was tedious to find, so readers were mainly limited to whatever the newspaper or broadcast provided within its limited space.

Now everything is part of a grand, searchable archive, which permits people to go as deep as they want whenever they want. Those who don’t have the time to come up to speed on the banking crisis in Cyprus can put off learning about it until later. Then they can go to a resource like Wikipedia’s coverage and spend hours digging into background for more than 40 sources cited there.

We prefer the glass-half-full perspective. While the loss of the media’s watchdog function is troubling, the power of having timeless access to resources we didn’t even know existed is energizing. The challenge is to find ways to fund the valuable services that media has provided in the past so that the information that doesn’t attract search engines and sponsorship dollars still has a platform.

 

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Here’s a news item we didn’t expect to see. Borrell Associates now predicts that U.S. newspaper revenue will rise in 2013, although only by a scant .5%. If the prediction holds true, it would be the industry’s first revenue increase since 2006.

Magazine Print Editions, Websites & Tablets # of Unique Brands Advertising
Time Period Print + Web + Tablet
(unduplicated)
H1 2010 9,536
H1 2011 10,768
H1 2012 14,949
Source: Kantar Media
Base: 60 Publishing Brands with monitored print editions, websites and tablet editions

Borrell’s optimistic newspaper forecast defies conventional wisdom. The research and consulting firm has no particular incentive to bolster the print newspaper business, but it has been forecasting a turnaround for a couple of years. CEO Gordon Borrell said he expects most of the revenue growth to accrue to small newspapers, which have been the most resilient segment of the business during its historic decline. Large dailies will continue to see the annual 4% to 6% declines that have been the norm for the last few years.

The turnaround is shaky, though. Pre-print ads, which typically bring in about 20% of all advertising revenue, could decline as the result of a sweetheart deal between the U.S. Postal Service and a large direct-mail company. The Newspaper Association of America’s howls of protest about the contract have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Borrell is also putting a lot of faith in local online advertising, which it predicts will grow 30% next year. Given that online ad growth at newspapers has been in the single digits annually for the last four years, that seems a stretch. You can hear all of Gordon Borrell’s comments in this recorded webcast.

There’s also good news in magazine land. The Magazine Publishers Association surveyed its members and found a 57% jump  in the number of brands advertising on all magazine media platforms since 2010. That includes tablet, online and print advertising.  The MPA also said magazine apps are some of the highest-grossing titles in the areas of lifestyle, health & fitness and news in the iTunes store.

Publishers apparently are a pretty upbeat bunch. A new study by Michael Jenner of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism finds that two-thirds of newspaper publishers are optimistic about the future, and only 4% are pessimistic. Jenner said the research is based on 450 in-depth interviews with senior publishing executives. They’re moving ahead aggressively on digital platforms, but 60% “do not envision a time in the future when their individual publications will no longer issue print versions of the news.” We admire their optimism, but that’s just nuts.

The Numbers from Nola

Ken Doctor has no illusions about the future. “We all realize that, at some point, daily print will go away,” he writes at the top of this financial analysis of the New Orleans Times-Picayune‘s frequency cuts. Doctor understands the economics of the news publishing business as few people do (his Newsonomics site is a must-read), and this analysis is a useful insight into the revenue and expense models of metro dailies.

Doctor estimates, for example, that circulation brings in about 30% of total revenue at the Times-Picayune and that the four daily editions that are being eliminated contribute between 25% and 30% of print ad revenues. The net result of the paper’s cutback from seven to three issues per week is about an 11% advantage in profitability, he estimates. That’s good, but there are big risks. One is that the T-P is bucking the trend of deriving more revenue from readers and actually doubling down on advertising as a strategy. In effect, it’s doing more of what got newspapers into trouble in the first place.

Meanwhile, the competitive news environment in the Big Easy has made the paper a tempting target for everything from a startup called The Lens to the Baton Rouge Advocate. “Simply, the T-P’s slimming has opened up a floodgate of competition,” Doctor writes. “That makes the distinctive value proposition of the T-P harder and harder to get paying readers to accept.”

That isn’t stopping owner Advance Publications from methodically duplicating the frequency-reduction strategy across its portfolio. The limited success of that strategy in Detroit, where the Free Press and Detroit News made similar frequency cuts nearly four years ago, isn’t necessarily a reliable guide. The Detroit media market is a lot less competitive than New Orleans’, and the strategy hasn’t stopped the steady drumbeat of circulation declines and layoffs.

Incidentally, Nola residents haven’t taken the T-P cutbacks lying down. Grassroots efforts to reverse Advance’s decision testify to the unsinkable spirit of that unique region.

Update, 10/17/12: A survey by Cribb, Greene reports that newspaper publishers are increasingly confident about the future. More than 40% said their local markets are improving, up from 14% in 2011. The percentage who expect profitability to improve this year rose to 52% from 39%, and those who expect advertising revenue to be higher in 2013 grew by a similar margin. Asked if they would buy a newspaper business in the current economic climate, about half said “no.” However, 69% responded “yes” or “maybe” when asked if they would recommend the newspaper business as a career for their children.

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James Macpherson, Pasadena NowEver heard of James Macpherson? If you’re a veteran journalist, you probably have, although you might know him better as “that asshole who fired his entire reporting staff and outsourced local coverage of Pasadena, Calif. to India.”

We got a note from Macpherson the other day pointing out that recent trends would indicate that he was a trailblazer, not a nut.

In spite of the clobbering in the media I took for the idea then — and in spite of the Journatic debacle now –  the truth remains that some form of editorial outsourcing IS coming to newsrooms near you, and probably soon…Newsroom outsourcing is inevitable. The idea is so powerful it should be explored and discussed, not simply rebuked.

Macpherson also pointed us to a couple of his own blog entries on the subject: “The Outsourcing of Hyperlocal Journalism Is Inevitable” and “And Now, A Penny for My Thoughts.” They’re both worth reading. As we pointed out recently, the price of journalism is being readjusted to a new equilibrium point, and ideas like outsourcing local city council coverage to writers in Manila aren’t nearly as far-fetched as they once seemed.

It’s a Business

A lot of debate about the future of journalism has been tinged with emotion, which is understandable given how many jobs have been lost. The harsh reality, though, is that the vast majority of journalism is practiced by profit-making organizations. These companies are struggling with seismic shifts that have changed their business model forever. Advertising costs are in long-term decline, reader switching costs are zero, barriers to competitive entry have vanished and mass media are being displaced by specialized media. Any organization that hopes to survive in such a market needs to do things differently.

The approach to outsourcing that Macpherson outlines in this post is rational and workable in many scenarios: Offshore whatever can be offshored and have the people on the scene focus on capturing the action. Keep expertise local and farm out the rest.

If you’ve ever worked in a newsroom, you know there’s a lot of work that doesn’t require people to leave the office. Copy editing is a desk job. So is obituary writing. Editors fill holes on print pages by rewriting wire copy. Sports editors rarely go into a locker room and city editors don’t cover school board meetings. They’ve done all that stuff and graduated to jobs where they supervise others.

Some of this stuff is easy to outsource, and a lot of it already has been dispatched to interns or specialty shops like Legacy.com. The tough part is deconstructing jobs where experience is an asset, like the sports editor. Those jobs should stay intact on these shores, although some of the routine work may be able to be done elsewhere.

Get Me Rewrite

Journalism has traditionally been a vertically integrated craft. The reporter who covers the city council meeting is also expected to write the story, even if that person can’t compose a coherent paragraph. We’ve all known people who were great fact-finders or interviewers but who couldn’t write. Rewrite editors were an early tool to compensate for that. Now technology is taking deconstruction to a new level.

Anyone with a smart phone and an Internet connection can now be a live streaming news source. People on the scene can embellish or correct a published account, even if they don’t work for the news organization. Aggregating, summarizing and commenting upon published reports is the essence of what most bloggers do. In many cases, being on the scene isn’t nearly as important as it used to be.

Outsourcing is not an all-or-nothing proposition, but a process of optimizing for value. Move routine work to the lowest-cost source and invest in stuff that makes a difference. Businesses have done this with manufacturing, payroll, facilities maintenance, information technology and the many other tasks for years.

But what about quality? That’s the most common objection to outsourcing in general, but we think markets are pretty good at figuring that out. Journalists aren’t the ultimate arbiters of quality; their readers are. If you believe that the public no longer has an interest in quality journalism, then outsourcing is a pretty depressing prospect. However, we don’t think the public is that stupid.

Macpherson is right: These ideas should be developed and not dismissed as lunacy simply because they break with tradition. If someone can put out a journal at lower cost that its audience values and that someone will pay to support, then the market will make it own decisions.