Near the end of the overview section of the Pew Research Center’s exhaustive study of the business issues facing American newspapers, one unnamed executive sums up the industry’s dilemma: “There might be a 90% chance you’ll accelerate the decline if you gamble and a 10% chance you might find the new model. No one is willing to take that chance.”
That’s it in a nutshell. The newspaper industry is standing on a railroad trestle 100 feet above a rushing river while a locomotive bears down on it. The only thing worse than getting hit by the train is jumping out of the way. The study outlines in depressing detail how paralyzed the industry is in its search for new business models, although there are glimmers of hope in the successes of a few innovators.
Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism surveyed 38 US newspapers and conducted extensive on-site follow-up interviews to examine the industry’s search for new business models. The sample was representative of the composition of US newspapers as a whole, with a mix of geographies and a preponderance of smaller titles.
In general, small papers are faring better than the large ones, but all are facing the same specter off print advertising declines that far exceed growth of digital alternatives. In fact, researchers concluded that for every $1 gained in new digital revenue, newspapers are losing $7 of print revenue.
“There’s no doubt we’re going out of business right now,” said one executive.
No Names, Please
One of the project’s most frustrating characteristics is its anonymity. Researchers had to promise not to name names in order to get executives to let down their guard. The result is some memorable quotes but few actionable examples. We learn of one small paper that posted 63% growth in digital revenue in the last full year while also growing print sales 8%. Another major metro daily was said to have grown its digital business 50% in the last year. It would great if these outliers would come forth and tell everyone else how they did it, but we may never know their identities.
The Pew study is emphatic in identifying the industry’s core problems as more cultural than operational. “There’s a big difference between understanding the new media environment and comprehending what it takes to adapt,” says one executive.
Fifteen years after the arrival of the commercial Internet, the industry continues to rely on print advertising to an alarming degree and has made only halting progress in developing new revenue streams. That isn’t for lack of trying. Everyone is trying to find digitally savvy salespeople, most are paying premiums for online ad sales and all publishers are aware of the need to experiment with alternative revenue sources like daily deals and business services.
However, they’re mostly having meager results. Few papers studied in the report are taking advantage of the growth in targeted digital advertising. Most are still reliant upon low-margin display ads. Nearly half of the publications have experimented with alternative revenue streams like consulting services and digital shopping malls, but only one reported any significant revenue.
Unfortunately, rapid sales declines in the profitable print business are creating a hair’s-on-fire hysteria that sabotages change. The kind of salespeople publishers need to hire don’t want to work in an industry that’s in crisis. The number of print-focused sales representatives outnumber digitally focused reps by about 3-1 at the newspapers surveyed and there continues to be debate at some companies about whether digital is event the future. That sounds incredible, but the study identifies entrenched resistance among many publishers to diverging from the business model that served them so well in the days of monopoly market share and 20% profit margins.
Officials at 10 of the 13 companies said their biggest challenge was the continuing tension between people in their organizations who are advocating a more aggressive digital approach and those more aligned with the legacy tradition. In essence, they described a conflict between going faster and going slower…”We haven’t needed innovative people,” explained one executive. “So you get what you need. The kind of people that came into this industry were more operationally focused, executors instead of innovator risk takers.”
The good news is that there is broad awareness at the highest levels of the companies surveyed that the industry’s problems aren’t going to heal themselves. In fact, no one quoted in the report suggests that the current downturn is temporary or cyclical. Where they differ is on what to do about it. “The data and interviews suggest companies are almost evenly divided between optimists and pessimists-evidence of a lack of consensus on how to proceed in developing the new business model,” the report says. Unfortunately, at a time like this the only certainty is that inaction is death.