Warning: Fuzzy math ahead.
As we know, the most deadly problem the newspaper business faces is that very little advertising has migrated from the print to the Web. A dollar’s worth of print advertising translates to pennies online. Thus we have initiatives like Steven Brill’s Journalism Online aimed at getting people to pay for Web content. As I argued earlier this week, it probably can’t be done.
But we do need to shift to a model by which consumers will pick up a decent share of the cost. Even after the recession, classified ads are not going to move back from Craigslist to newspapers or their Web sites. And with far fewer local businesses, display ads bring in less revenue than was the case at one time.
What are people willing to pay for? A premium, well-edited news package, portable and easier to use than a typical newspaper Web site. The print edition meets that definition, which is why I think the Boston Globe ought to charge a lot more for it, even though it would, inevitably, drive down paid circulation. The logic: As it stands, circulation revenue barely covers the cost of printing and distribution. If ad revenue is not going to recover, then readers are going to have to pay.
But there’s another possibility. Fifteen years ago folks like Roger Fidler, then of Knight Ridder, suggested that portable digital devices he called “tablets” would one day be so cheap that newspapers would give them away so they could shut down their presses. It’s possible that moment has come in the form of Amazon’s Kindle — not as cheap as Fidler had envisioned, but maybe cheap enough.
The Globe’s Sunday circulation is about 500,000. Let’s say around 400,000 of those are home-delivered. What if you gave every one of those households a free Kindle in return for a three-year, seven-day subscription to the Globe?
Let’s do the math, such as it is. A Kindle costs $359. Assume the Globe could get a price of $300 apiece in return for buying 400,000 of them. That’s $120 million. Spread it over, say, six years, and that’s $20 million a year.
The Globe already charges $10 a month for its Kindle edition. If it extracted that from 400,000 households, it would come to $48 million a year in guaranteed income for three years. (And I’m not so sure you couldn’t charge double that.) After that, subscriptions would renew automatically once a year, which is how the few online news organizations that charge for online access (the Wall Street Journal, The New Republic) handle it.
And here’s where the big savings come in: You shut down the presses. Permanently. No more paper, ink, trucks, fuel and the like. No more jobs for a lot of hard-working people, either, which would be a tragedy, but not as big a tragedy as closing the Globe.
I’ve never gotten my hands on a Kindle, but I have played with a Sony Reader, which is a similar device. The portability and the clarity of the e-ink are both well ahead of even the smallest, sharpest laptop. The Globe’s Kindle edition gets mediocre reviews. But with no more print edition to think about, I’m sure it could be upgraded considerably. And with a large regional customer base, it might prove to be an attractive platform for new kinds of advertising.
Can this work? I have no idea. As a last-ditch effort, though, I definitely think it makes more sense than simply closing the print edition and trying to sell ads on Boston.com. If we come to that point, then I definitely think the Kindle would be a better option.
Credit where it’s due: There are very few original ideas out there. Although I wrote favorably about the Kindle as a newspaper platform way back in November 2007 (here and here), I want to point out that Mike B1 floated a proposal very similar to the one I’m making today just recently.
And Tim Allik points out that Silicon Valley Insider, in January, looked at the numbers behind moving the print edition of the New York Times to the Kindle.