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

The wrong solution to the wrong problem

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.

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  1. rozzie02131

    I was just about to forward this column to you. My first reaction is, “Yes! Finally, somebody gets it!” Newspapers cannot keep giving away their expensive content in the hopes that some banner ad will pay for it. People don’t look at banner ads in the same way they see newspaper ads, and they aren’t doing the job for advertisers. That’s why web advertising is down and it will never pay the bills. Newspaper websites are destroying their business model, and I believe they are destroying the entire newspaper experience. Nobody spends an hour on a newspaper website, but it’s easy to spend that kind of time with a newspaper. Newspaper websites need to be less interactive and less complete, and they need to send readers to the newspaper (or a paid electronic edition), not the other way around.The debt story is another issue, and it is killing corporations all over the media, but it is not killing the media. If Tribune went bankrupt due to huge corporate debt, someone would buy it or launch a successor and the world would move on. If newspapers kill their business model by giving away their product, they will all be dead, period. And poor Drudge, Politico, and HuffPost will have nothing to link to.

  2. Ryan

    I don't think you're right, Razz, but I don't think Carr's wrong, either. What I think is that there are many ways in which newspapers can operate, but they have to find their niche and do it well. Online ventures can – and have – worked, just like print-only ventures can and have failed. A lot of stuff is going on. First thing is the fact that I reject the notion that people don't pay attention to banner ads like they do print ads. The big difference between why banner ads don't earn what print ads do, imho, is just the fact that banner ads typically pay only when people click on them. Macy's doesn't pay the Globe only when someone brings in a coupon they cut out from the Sunday edition. The biggest problem, IMHO, is the expectations game. It's going to be difficult for a newspaper to earn the type of profit margins that make Wall Street happy, yet even today most of them are profitable. The solution? Take newspapers off Wall Street. All that said & I think newspapers have been a) shortsighted and b) unwilling to adapt and revolutionize the new mediums, which has hurt profits… but if they took themselves off Wall Street, they could have still been stupid and shortsighted and wouldn't be worried about the wrath of their investors.

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