No doubt David Carr’s column in today’s New York Times is going to get a lot of attention. Carr takes a look at the triCityNews of Monmouth, N.J., a small alternative weekly that is thriving, supposedly because it doesn’t put any of its content online.
I don’t have a fully formed reaction, but I do have some observations that should provide some context.
- It’s hardly a secret that small newspapers are still making money, especially if they haven’t been burdered with the crushing debt that chain ownership often brings. Nor does putting content online have much of an effect on the print circulation of small papers. The triCityNews would probably be doing fine even if it had a robust Web site — especially since the print edition is free.
- Large papers aren’t doing as badly as you think, either. Tribune Co.’s headline-grabbing bankruptcy was due entirely to the $13.6 billion in debt it’s carrying, the result of two ill-conceived mergers. In fact, the company’s newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, would be operating at a profit were it not for the debt.
- The most lucrative part of any newspaper, large or small, used to be its classified-ad section. That’s gone forever, mainly because of Craigslist, which will continue to thrive regardless of the triCityNews’ online strategy.
- Even so, free online editions may slowly be moving toward profitability. Jeff Jarvis reports that the LA Times’ Web site revenue is greater than the cost of its news-gathering operation, suggesting that the print edition could be scrapped at some point. I suspect it’s not quite that simple. But it’s not hopeless, either.
Carr wants that newspaper executives to rethink the whole notion of putting their content online for free. Carr’s a sharp guy, but in this case I think he’s proposing the wrong solution to the wrong problem.