Tuesday, May 08, 2007

How to Sink a Newspaper

"Heard on the Web" Media Intelligence:
Courtesy of BoSacks and The Precision Media Group
America's Oldest e-newsletter est.1993
Precision Media Group

"Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego"

 Jack London quotes (American short-story Writer and Novelist whose works deal romantically with elemental struggles for survival. One of the most extensively translated of American authors. 1876-1916)

How to Sink a Newspaper

One has to wonder how many of the newspaper industry's current problems are self-inflicted. Take free news. News has become ubiquitous, free, and as a result, a commodity. Anytime you are trying to sell something that becomes a commodity, you have lost much of the value in providing that product or service.

Not many years ago if someone wanted to find out what was in the newspaper they had to buy one. But not anymore. Now you can just go to the newspaper's Web site and get that same information for free.

The newspaper industry wonders why it is losing young readers. Those readers might be young, but many of them are smart, not to mention computer-savvy. Why would they buy a newspaper when they can get the same information online for free?

Newspapers initially created their Web sites with the best of intentions. After all, newspapers are in the information business. And rather than fight the new medium, the Internet, why not embrace it? Wanting to be the leading information providers and thereby have the most popular Web site in the community, they posted all of their news online for free.

[How to Sink a Newspaper]

Exacerbating the problem with free news was the decision by the newspaper industry, which owns the Associated Press, to sell AP copy to news aggregators like Yahoo, Google and MSN. These aggregators created lucrative news portals where the world could get much of the news that was in newspapers. So readers could now get free news not only on newspaper Web sites, but also from portals and aggregators that had a chance to monetize the content, most of which was created and financed by the newspaper industry.

With local radio and television stations also creating Web sites and posting their news for free, newspapers soon realized that much of the news on the broadcast Web sites had been created by the local newspaper. So, whereas before the newspapers were selling print ads while radio and TV were selling air time, now they were all selling the same medium: their Web sites. Since newspapers share their content with the Associated Press so other members can use it, radio and TV members are using much of that content to compete against the newspapers that created it.

Newspapers have for years been frustrated by radio stations which merely read the stories which are printed in that morning's edition. TV stations often get much of their news from the newspapers, too. But reading it on the air is clearly different from posting it online, placing them in direct competition with newspapers' Web sites.

All of this would be fine if newspapers generated lots of additional revenues from offering free news. But the fact is newspapers generate most of their online revenues from classified advertising, not from news. Gordon Borrell, CEO of Borrell Associates, estimated that newspaper Web sites generated 78% of their revenues from classifieds in 2006.

It turns out that a Web site is a very different medium from a newspaper. While consumers often find pop-up ads a distraction and banner ads as more clutter, readers often seek out the advertising in newspapers.

The Inland Cost and Revenue Study shows that newspapers will generate between $500 and $900 in revenue per subscriber per year. But a newspaper's Web site typically generates $5 to $10 per unique visitor per year. It may be that newspaper Web sites as an advertising medium, and free news, just can't generate the revenue to sustain a valued news operation.

In fact, online revenues for the publicly traded newspaper companies in 2005 varied from 1.7% at Journal Register Co. to 5.7% at Belo Corp. The only company higher was the Washington Post Co. at 8.4%. Yet newspapers typically spend 12% or more of their revenues on their news and editorial operations.

The Wall Street Journal Online now has 931,000 paying subscribers, more than the paying subscribers to all but three U.S. newspapers: USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Our newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, does not offer our news for free on the Web site. We offer free headlines. On a few selected stories, we offer a few free paragraphs, designed to get people to read our paper. We also offer free classifieds.

Recently I had the opportunity to compare our Web site policy with the free news policies of other papers. For the six months ending March 31, 2007, the newspaper industry's circulation was down 2.1% daily and 3.1% Sunday. By contrast, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's circulation was up 1.24% daily and up less than 1% Sunday.

I was able to make another interesting comparison, too, with the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch. Columbus and Little Rock are both state capitals. Columbus is a larger market, and the Columbus Dispatch's circulation of 217,291 compares with 176,172 for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Up until Jan. 1, 2006, both our paper and the Columbus Dispatch offered news content only by subscription. We even charged the same price, $4.95, for an online monthly subscription, and both of us offered the same style electronic editions.

But Columbus dropped its subscription model on Jan. 1, 2006, and began offering most of its news for free. Its Web traffic and revenues certainly increased. But what happened to its paid circulation?

The six months ending Sept. 30, 2006 was a good comparison, since it compared six months in 2006 when the Columbus Dispatch had free news on its Web site compared with six months in 2005 when it did not offer free news. The Columbus Dispatch's daily circulation was down 5.8% while Sunday was down 1.1% for the six-month period. This compared with our loss of less than 0.4% daily and 1% Sunday.

When I looked at this comparison with Columbus, as well as the newspaper industry's larger losses, it didn't encourage me to change our Web policy to free news.

So what are we doing with our Web site? We have hired a videographer to complement our text coverage in the newspaper. We have added photo galleries to increase the number of photographs beyond what we can publish. We offer an electronic edition where you can search the entire edition by keywords, something you can't do in the print edition. And we offer breaking news email alerts, something else you can't do in print. In other words, we are offering value on our Web site that complements, rather than cannibalizes, our print edition.

Collectively, the American newspaper industry spends $7 billion on news and editorial operations. This includes everything from copy editor salaries to sports travel expenses. In addition, the Associated Press spent about $600 million world-wide in editing and creating news. By offering this news for free, and selling it to aggregators like Google, Yahoo and MSN for a small fraction of what it costs to create it, newspaper readership and circulation have declined.

These declines are accelerating. In 2004 and prior years, industry circulation declines were usually less than 1%. Since March 2005, these declines have been 2%-3% per year. With declining readership comes declining ad revenues, which are followed by layoffs.

The newsroom layoffs are most troubling, as less news with less quality, context and details results in more declines in readership and later, declines in advertising. If the $7 billion spent covering news becomes $6 billion, and later $5 billion, it is not just the newspaper industry that gets hurt. Journalism will be diminished in America with less investigative and enterprise reporting; indeed, less reporting of state houses, city halls, school boards, business and sports. Clearly a lot is at stake.

It is time for newspapers to reconsider the ultimate costs and consequences of free news.

Precision Media Group

"Heard on the Web" Media Intelligence: Courtesy of The Precision Media Group.
Print, Publishing and Media Consultants

 Contact - Robert M. Sacks 518-329-7994 PO Box 53, Copake NY 12516
This email was sent to bosacks.tobor@blogger.com, by bosacks@aol.com
Precision Media Group | PO Box 53 | Copake | NY | 12516

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