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

Take two and call me in the morning

These two pieces really need to be read together. In today’s New York Times, media columnist David Carr takes a look at Gannett’s Journal News, in Westchester County, which has essentially fired the whole staff and invited everyone to reapply.

It sounds brutal — OK, it is brutal — but with the business model irretrievably broken, it makes perfect sense to blow everything up and start over. If it’s inevitable that the paper is going to end up with a much smaller staff, then it’s vital that the right people get to keep their jobs.

The second piece is a blog post by Howard Owens, the former GateHouse digital-publishing director who’s now publisher of the Batavian, a community news site covering the area between Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y.

Although much of Owens’ post is about why it makes sense for newspaper companies to separate print and online news operations, the heart of it is that since online advertising can only grow so much, the proper response is to cut expenses in order to reach break-even. He writes:

In a market where the newspaper newsroom might cost $10 million, I knew how to make $1 million online, or even $2 million, but I didn’t know — and still don’t — how to make $10 million.

So if I can make a million online, why do I need operate a $10 million newsroom, especially given the greater efficiencies of online publishing?

It’s possible to make money in online journalism. What may not be possible is for large, legacy news organizations — especially newspapers — to survive unless their executives are willing to rethink everything they do.

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  1. I know nothing about newspapers’ finances. I’m curious what percentage goes to production and distribution vs. newsroom salaries. Can you cut 30-50-80% of expenses by going online, only?

    • Dan Kennedy

      John: Absolutely you can. The problem is that you cut revenue by even more, since online ads are worth only a fraction of print ads. Thus the dilemma in which the industry finds itself.

  2. Peter Porcupine

    DK – but would not the value of the online ads increase in value if seperated from the flagging print version ads? If you chose what you paid for – clicks or pages sold?

  3. Al

    After all the cutting and paring of costs, would the resulting newsroom be as capable of reporting and writing in depth as the current print newsroom?

  4. amused

    If the people running the shop can’t tell who should stay and who should go without the bogus apply-for-your-job ritual then they shouldn’t be running the shop.

    “Information Center department?” Topics, not beats?

    Sounds an awful lot like the Cole Campbell days in St. Louis. A disaster.

    “It’s possible to make money in online journalism” I see no evidence of that. You might make some money in on-line blogging, bloviating and borrowing the work of others, but I can’t find anyone making money doing real journalism with only a Web page.

    I still have more faith in Goss than in Microsoft.

  5. Amused: Howard Owens says he’s supporting himself with the Batavian, which is for-profit.

    At the non-profit, grant-supported New Haven Independent, two people are making a full-time living.

    So now you’ve got evidence.

  6. Al

    Dan: Two f/t people at NHI, and Howard Owens making a living at the Batavian are encouraging, but could a major operation with broad, deep aims be run similarly, or is the model restricted to small, local endeavors?

    • Dan Kennedy

      Al: You’ve identified the major challenge. Although I should point out that small and local is working at a number of places, not just the Batavian and the New Haven Independent. But yes, finding a way to do expensive public-interest journalism in the post-newspaper age is going to be very difficult.

  7. Cathy

    If Howard Owens is truly making a living at the Batavian, why is he begging for money??

  8. Cathy, I stated quite clearly that while we’re making a living (we’re currently more than breaking even), with a little left over, I’d like to quickly ramp up our expenditures on capital projects. You’re comment is completely disingenuous.

    Also, for any concerned about small online news operations only generating enough revenue to survive, but not do big expensive journalism, go read my post on about how newspapers started.

  9. Cathy

    Howard, Your venture should be no different than any other “small” business owner. You should not expect the community to support your expenditures, should the butcher down the street set out a donation jug for new equipment? Your talk of “ramping up expenditures for capital projects” is nothing more than backward thinking from your days in the “corporate world” when you were able to con the powers that be! Those days are gone and now you may actually have to put in an honest days work for an honest days pay.

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