Readers show increasing willingness to pick up the tab

New York Times figures include International Herald Tribune. Boston Globe figures include Worcester Telegram & Gazette and Boston.com. Courtesy of Paul McMorrow.

Advertiser-supported journalism isn’t going away, but it’s not going to recover, either. The forces aligned against it are just too overwhelming. Classifieds aren’t coming back. Print is dying. And online advertisers are staying away from news sites even as Internet ads overall continue to grow, as this Reuters report by Jennifer Saba shows.

Which is why the New York Times Co.’s progress in tilting the revenue equation away from advertising and toward readers is so important. Joe Coscarelli of New York magazine writes that circulation revenue at the company’s Big Three newspapers — the Times, the International Herald Tribune and the Boston Globe — is rising faster than ad revenue is falling.

(Coscarelli doesn’t say so, but his Globe numbers are almost certainly for the New England Newspaper Group — the Globe, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and Boston.com. The Times Co. does not break out those numbers separately.)

Here are the details. In the second quarter of this year, which ended on June 30, the Times Co. lost $88.1 million. Advertising, both in print and online, fell 6.6 percent, to $220 million. But circulation revenue rose 8.3 percent, to $233 million. News-business analyst Ken Doctor tells Coscarelli that the Times Co. may be the first major newspaper company to pull in more money from circulation than from advertising.

The newspaper business had long earned some 80 percent of its revenues from ads. It was often said that the news was free, with readers asked to pay only for printing and delivery. The question facing the industry is whether there are enough readers who value newspapers to pay much more for print than they used to, and to pay anything at all for online access.

The Times and the Globe both have smart, flexible digital-subscription systems that are being closely watched by newspaper executives. (The Telegram & Gazette has a paywall as well, though I’m not familiar enough with it to offer an assessment.) But the Times has been much more successful than the Globe in selling digital subscriptions — 509,000 for the Times and the IHT in the second quarter, compared to about 23,000 for the Globe, according to Chris Reidy of the Globe.

The caution flag for the Globe is that the Times is an utterly unique product — for all its flaws, it is surely the highest-quality, most comprehensive news source in the United States. And it may be the one news source people are willing to pay for.

The Globe is an excellent regional paper, but it’s unlikely that online subscriptions will ever be more than a small part of its revenue stream. Globe executives themselves seem wary of pushing the paywall too hard, as they continue to offer quite a bit of Globe content on the free Boston.com site. Indeed, the chart above, put together by Paul McMorrow of CommonWealth Magazine, shows that circulation revenue as a percentage of overall revenues actually dipped slightly in the second quarter at the New England Media Group.

In other words, the latest numbers are great news for the Times. For everyone else, they are something to aspire to, with no guarantee of success.

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Coughing up (or not) for online content

I have been in the throes of rewriting my book the past few weeks, which is why blogging has been sporadic. But let me pause to offer a reading suggestion — Howard Owens’ 10 arguments against paywalls for online news, published yesterday by the Columbia Journalism Review.

Particularly good is No. 9: “Paywalls don’t address the fundamental issues facing newspapers.”

Although I’m not as resolutely opposed to paywalls as Owens, he lays out the arguments against them intelligently and forcefully.

The Providence Journal’s print-first strategy (II)

Just out of curiosity, I tried out the Providence Journal on Mrs. Media Nation’s iPad last night. And though I haven’t changed my mind about PDF-based e-editions being generally miserable to navigate and read, the iPad app does make the experience decidedly less miserable.

Being able to use my hands to tap on stories and flip through the paper made using the e-edition sort of all right. I would have been hugely impressed if this were 2001 instead of 2011. Of course, if I wanted to look at the paper exactly as it was published, I’d go buy a copy — which, as I have argued, appears to be exactly what Journal officials have in mind.

But if the e-edition turns out to be reasonably priced, it may prove to be a viable option for people who’ve moved away and still need their daily fix of the Journal. I wonder if we’ll ever find out how many e-subscriptions the Journal ends up selling? I can’t imagine it will be more than a handful.

The Providence Journal’s print-first strategy

During the same week that the Boston Globe started charging for much of its online content and the New York Times announced it has signed up 324,000 paying digital customers, the Providence Journal unveiled its new website — a prelude to its long-promised (or long-threatened) paywall.

The new ProvidenceJournal.com — goodbye, Projo.com — includes just the first few paragraphs of most stories. If you want to read the whole paper online, you have to subscribe to one of those miserable e-editions, a PDF-like format that is difficult to navigate and even more difficult to read. (The Journal’s implementation does seem to be slightly less miserable than others I’ve seen.) There’s an iPad version, too.

Ted Nesi, who’s been writing about the Journal for WPRI.com, says it’s not yet clear what access will cost after the current free trial period expires. But this is not a digital strategy — it’s a print strategy, built on the idea of downgrading the Journal’s electronic presence. Nesi and I talked last December, when the Journal announced the new direction, and what I said then seems to apply now:

The Journal is sacrificing its website in order to bolster its print edition, which is where it makes most of its money. I understand why Journal managers are doing this, but it’s a short-term solution that could prove harmful in the long term. I also wonder whether it will even accomplish anything. Newspaper readers are skimmers, and a headline and brief synopsis of a story may be all that they want.

The Times is proving that people will pay for a well-thought-out, reasonably priced online edition. The Globe is about to learn whether readers in Greater Boston will do the same. The Journal, by contrast, is looking backwards. It might even work — but for no more than a few years.

BostonGlobe.com fires up the cash register

BostonGlobe.com is supposed to shut down any minute now. When it returns, at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, it will become a paid site, eventually costing $3.99 a week. The best deal: taking home delivery of the Sunday paper for $3.50 a week, which gives you access to all of the Globe’s digital content for no extra charge.

Since the debut of the website in September, I’ve heard people complain that it’s too cumbersome to use. My own experience is that it’s gotten better, and that folks at the Globe are responsive to suggestions. In particular, the “Today’s Paper” section has improved. But it works better as a breaking-news site.

Thus I still find myself making some use of GlobeReader, the Adobe Air-based platform that serves as a pretty good representation of that day’s Globe. It’s not perfect — content is sometimes missing, and photos seem like an afterthought. But for those of us who still like to flip through the paper, I find you can do so much more efficiently than you can with the website. (You can use GlobeReader with a laptop or desktop computer, but not with an iPad or a smartphone, since those don’t support Air.)

Globe publisher Chris Mayer told me in August that GlobeReader would continue to be offered for some time to come, but would not be improved and would eventually be phased out. So it’s not a permanent solution.

So let me suggest that the Globe work on something similar to New York Times Skimmer, a website that presents all of the Times’ major RSS feeds in a Reader-like format. I think offering that in addition to the standard website would give readers a couple of good options depending on how much time they had and what device they were using. And Skimmer works on the iPad.

This morning’s BostonGlobe.com report

The next few weeks should be interesting as the folks at the Boston Globe work out the bugs at BostonGlobe.com.

Starting last night, the site stopped working on my almost-four-year-old MacBook using Chrome and Safari. (Might be just my set-up, though I did reboot.) On the other hand, it still works fine with Firefox, for which I’ve recently been developing a new appreciation, as it seems to be the most stable of the three major Mac browsers. No problems on my iPhone or on Mrs. Media Nation’s iPad, either.

I’m glad to see Dan Wasserman’s editorial cartoon made it to the site today, and I hope syndicated cartoons will be included on days that Wasserman isn’t drawing. The comics are online today, too. Maybe they were yesterday, but I couldn’t find them.

Other observations: clean as the site is, the organizational scheme is a bit bewildering, with many different options. I feel as though I’m missing stuff. The “Today’s Paper” option doesn’t seem to be quite that. It would be nice to have a clearly delineated separate section of everything that’s in that day’s print edition.

Also, how about combining all the little “Names” tidbits into one column? Other “g” shorts could be combined, too. I don’t want to keep clicking to read 90-word items. It’s one of my main peeves about GlobeReader, too, and I’ll bet I’m not alone.

Subscriber-based BostonGlobe.com debuts

Readers turning to Boston.com this morning and clicking on “Today’s Globe” found something new — an invitation to register for the new BostonGlobe.com, a paid site that will be getting a free trial for the rest of September. After that, it will cost $3.99 a week, which makes it among the more ambitious attempts to persuade online news consumers to pay for content.

I was among a number of media observers who were given a sneak preview last month by Globe publisher Chris Mayer and editor Marty Baron. I’ve got a longer take on the new site up at the Nieman Journalism Lab, focusing mainly on the site’s use of HTML5, which enables the Globe to offer a standalone app for the iPad and iPhone and avoid paying Apple its 30 percent cut.

Also, Nieman’s Joshua Benton offers four observations and asks lots of questions. Jeff Sonderman has a rundown at Poynter. Staci D. Kramer covers the launch for paidContent. And there’s plenty of coverage at BostonGlobe.com itself, starting here.

Access to BostonGlobe.com is included with any type of print subscription, including Sundays-only. Since the Sunday-paper-plus-GlobeReader has been our solution of choice for a while now, this is nothing but a plus here in Media Nation.