By paulgillin | March 9, 2010 - 1:32 pm - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Paywalls

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.



This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 9th, 2010 at 1:32 pm and is filed under Facebook, Fake News, Paywalls. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. March 9, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    Paul, thanks for link and post on the song. Started off with 12 hits, now up to 1000 in a week, step by step, gaining audience share. Not that anyone cares! Here’s a note: re the same: Does the Chinese character for CRISIS also mean OPPORTUNITY as many Western pundits and oped writers and reporters often say? NO. This is an Asian myth: there are two different words and characters for Crisis and Opportunity, and they are NOT the same. The West needs to be disabused of this falsehood. HOWever, there IS an old saying in Chinese to the effect that “Every crisis also has in its the seeds of an opportunity” — perhaps this is where the confusion comes from….

    Posted by Dan Bloom
  2. March 10, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    Fine points on milking the cash cows.

    The convention you mention is the annual Newspaper Association of America conference, including its digital-media confab. Plenty of good digital folks have done yeoman’s work for NAA over the years. The trouble with the convention is that the digital piece is held at the same time and place as the circulation and marketing groups. This inevitably leads to sessions being hijacked (or at least having the sessions dragged down by questions that basically devolve to “Huh? Wha—?”) I finally stopped going a few years ago after one too many “discussions” kicked off by a circ drone screaming “When are YOU people going to start charging for OUR content?!?”

    Irony alert: This year, the same weekend as NAA, the American Society of News Editors (they dropped the “paper” from the name a couple years ago) is having a surprisingly forward-looking annual meeting in Washington. And HuffPo *IS* invited:

    Posted by Tom Davidson
  3. March 10, 2010 @ 8:47 am

    Thanks for your interesting perspective on the NAA event. And you’re right, looks like the news editors are being a bit more forward-looking in bringing in speakers who don’t have a stake in the legacy business.

    Posted by Paul Gillin
  4. March 10, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    […] view came from Paul Gillin, who writes that Andreessen “has a point that it makes senses to abandon failing models in the long term, but […]

  5. March 12, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    […] everyone agreed: Newspaper Death Watch’s Paul Gillin said publishers’ current strategy, which includes keeping the print model around, is an […]

  6. March 13, 2010 @ 2:46 am

    […] this discussion and points to two interesting responses to Andreessen from Alan Mutter and Paul Gillin, who both think that it is a bit too early to burn the […]

  7. March 13, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    Great points. and are pretty good fail sites dedicated to old journalism.

    Posted by lloyd
  8. March 20, 2010 @ 11:21 am

    […] everyone agreed: Newspaper Death Watch’s Paul Gillin said publishers’ current strategy, which includes keeping the print model around, is an […]