By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Paying for the news

Wise words from Troy Warren, circulation manager at the Bowling Green Daily News:

The news has always been free. Advertising has paid for the news. Circulation rates cover the cost of delivering the newspaper, so people have been paying us for delivery, not for the news.

I know there are still people who believe everything in the newspaper business will be all right once they can start charging folks for reading their Web sites. It’s not going to happen, and Warren explains why it shouldn’t.

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7 Comments

  1. Howard Owens

    I’ve been beat up by curmudgeons on my own blog for saying the same thing … which I first said probably close to three years ago.And Alexieff doesn’t have a clue what a “web-first strategy” is. His comments in the post clearly show he misses the point.

  2. Tony

    There are, at the ground level, some interesting conversations happening in our industry and what we should and should not be doing. There are differing philosophies, even within companies, especially in light of the fact that online ads are stagnant and will never sustain the number of employees many companies have if they cease to print the physical newspaper. Who delivers “the news” at that point is anyone’s guess. But what I am consistently amazed about is how easily people are willing to give up the ship instead of drawing a line in the sand and fighting for every last dime. I don’t know if Alexieff “misses the point” or not, especially in small areas or closed markets where the newspaper rules the news beat. For many of the nation’s weeklies and small dailies, there is no other game in town. They rule the news. So, why not continue to charge for it and make the maximum amount of money you can to keep the company vibrant, solvent, and employed? That’s the free market, right? There is no justification in cannibalizing subscriptions just to beat no other entity with the news online. That is a recipe for financial ruin. As we see the headlines from across the country, there are changes in the industry. But, as SNA just stated, weeklies are down but not down as much as dailies [Whew]. Troy Warren says this: “I’m not freaked by a ‘web first’ strategy; I think it’s inevitable. Someday my job may change and I would become an electronic delivery person instead of a print delivery person.”Or, someday your job could be gone completely because they already have the electronic delivery person in place before they stop the presses. During the arguments about “free” trade, globalists always said that “you can’t save the buggy whip industry” blithely ignoring the fact that computers, cars, whatever, are not and never were buggy whips. Some were relevant jobs and opened the door to the middle class. Now, we are falling backwards again. The delivery of information to the public is just as important a job and can’t be replaced by bloggers or people updating personal Web sites once a week about some neighborhood issue. That may be the wave of the future, but it would seem more logical to do everything we can to make sure we have relevant content for readers to absorb instead of just throwing whatever out there. Sometimes good enough isn’t good enough. Producing that content costs money but it is vitally important to the communities we serve and the general public. Sure, our industry may move to Web-only editions in the next one, two, or 15 years, and we can all hope for the best. But the reality is this: If online ads don’t bring in what the print display ads bring in, there won’t be anyone available to update the Web sites when that day comes. Or, at least no one in the field gathering relevant content that the readers might be interested in. Put up press releases until doomsday, watch your online ad revenue drop when readers don’t bother to visit anymore. The future seems to be showing us that even if our company stop the presses, we aren’t It would seem more logical to do everything our industry can do to get every subscription fee until the VERY LAST MINUTE instead of giving it totally away for free when people are still willing to pay for it. There is real money there – money that assists us in delivering content to the public and getting the job done. For example, let’s say my newspaper stopped publishing all the major stuff to our site in an effort to gain back more subscriptions. Videos, blog entries, regional content which wouldn’t make the print edition anyway, etc., would still be posted. But the major local content would be teased. On the site, I could say, Look folks, you’re going to have to buy the newspaper to read the employee-produced content. Be straight with people and let them choose to buy it or not be informed. If I could even drive up subscriptions by 5 percent, it would raise more than $9,000 in revenue from my title, money I could use to gather more content [granted, printing and delivery cost of the extra 5 percent circ would offset that figure]. If every newspaper across our company were able to gain 5 percent in print circ back, we would have more than a $1 million in extra revenue and circulation numbers would GROW not decline. This would assist in delivering more eyes to our print ads which is where we make our money. After a few months, if the experiment didn’t work, the newspaper could just go back to publishing the stories online and hope for the best. While our Web hits might drop a bit, this would seem like a small price to pay in order to keep people employed and deliver more news to readers.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Tony: I’m not saying let’s get rid of the print edition. I’m saying let’s stop kidding ourselves that we’ll be able to charge for online (or even that we should).I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I have noticed a subtle change over the last two years. At one time, the thinking was that print was doomed. Now, it seems to be more a matter of finding a strategy for print and online to work together.Look at the Boston Globe and its products, starting with Boston.com. Now, let’s move out from there and consider its print products:- The print edition as we know it. Most likely it’s going to get smaller and quite a bit more expensive over the next few years. It will be aimed at an elite audience, and the advertising will follow suit.- Metro Boston. In a really bad business move, the New York Times Co. bought just enough not to control it. But let’s say it did. This could be a free product for a mass audience, with shorter versions of articles in from the main print edition and reverse-published pieces from Boston.com — partly a good-quality quick read, partly a portable billboard for Boston.com- Soon the Globe will replace Sidekick with a thicker tabloid consisting of all the Globe’s arts and entertainment coverage. It will be called G. This presents another opportunity — in addition to including G in the print edition, why not give it away as a separate entity? That would pump up the advertising potential considerably.During the early 1990s, we did that at the Boston Phoenix, giving away our Styles section (and even setting up boxes around the city) at a time when we were charging $1.50 for the paper. It worked very well, but was eventually overtaken by other business ideas, including, finally, giving away the entire paper.Online is changing print, but it may not kill it, any more than television didn’t kill radio.

  4. Tony

    All good points. I remember being surveyed by the Boston Phoenix [when you were there] about what the future held for the newspaper. I remember one of the things I said in the survey was, “Please don’t go to $2 like the Village Voice did!” While I always bought the Phoenix each week, it was nice to see it become a free publication. To this day, I try to go out of my way each week to grab the print edition of the Phoenix and also read it online. There is just something about having the print edition in your hands …I don’t know if charging for online is the way to go either and that isn’t what I’m saying. I do know that the Salmon Press companies do this in Northern New Hampshire quite successfully. The deal is that you need to enter a subscription number in order to get the content online. It forces folks to get the print editions in order to get the online editions. That said, there isn’t much broadband up there so they would never be able to sustain the model with flashy online ads like we are seeing on major corporate Web sites. BTW, I don’t know what I was writing here: “The future seems to be showing us that even if our company stop the presses, we aren’t” in the post. I was in between rearranging my initial thoughts from first reading this and keeping the pancakes from burning on the stove! I think it was something like this: The future seems to be showing us that even if newspaper companies stop the presses, we aren’t going to be able to sustain the revenues – or staff – needed to do the initial job of composing and then delivering the news, etc.

  5. mike_b1

    The print publishers have done a horrendous job of 1) recognizing that the print and online audiences are generally two different sets of populations and thus are for advertisers two different markets, and 2) selling the idea that what can be known about the readership of the online side is far, far greater than what can be known about the print readers, and thus there should be a premium on that.Online, you can drill back to the original IP source. You can know what they looked at, how long they looked at it, where they came from before they looked at it, and where they went after. And you can package and sell that…if you’re willing to. But the “that’s not how we do things” mentality wins out.

  6. Jerry

    Some baseline information for those who want to try doing the math: Historically newspapers have figured circulation income at about 15 percent of gross — equal to the combined costs of the raw newsprint and of physically getting the paper from the press to the reader. Take away these elements (and without newsprint, you can take away the press and typesetting infrastructure, too), and what do you have?Idle thought: How did town criers get paid in the long-long-ago?Not quite so idle thought: Might there not be a way to levy a “delivery charge” to end users on the Net? Britain’s tax on TV sets comes to mind as the seeds of a possible model

  7. acf

    Tony said it: ‘There is just something about having the print edition in your hands …’I can stand to read an article here and there online, but you still don’t get a broad picture of what’s in the day’s news unless you’re sitting with your cup of coffee holding the print edition of the daily paper in your ink stained (the only disadvantage to print) hands. What I seem to get online is very current news, in a particular area of widespread interest, mostly linked to the headlines of the paper’s home page. In the print edition, I see a variety of news items, many of which I was not looking for, but which provide a greater breadth of knowledge to me, and keep me better informed.

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