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Posted byKaren Hill, former reporter
Atlanta Journal and Constitution
Thank you. As a reporter, I'm all for your ideas – as long as I get a say in what stories I write. I left my job with a large metro a few months ago in frustration over the crap, utter crap, editors were assigning me. Short, snappy, yes – but they forgot about the "must be interesting and/or useful enough to be worth the price of the paper."
To point 2, tie circ numbers to reporter pay, just one word: Hallelujah! As a reporter myself, it's a scary proposition, but it would also allow us to go after the juicy stories and then point to the spinning web counters for justification. Sure, maybe it'd be better to establish circ bonuses rather than tie it to regular pay. And, yes, it would mean more "man bites dog" stories (though I always read those). But I think it would also force reporters of all stripes to take more care to sell their serious stories in more readable ways. To me, that's just good writing.
1. "We're milking the cash cow dry while we eat the flesh."
This one nearly made me stand up and cheer. If news content is the one thing that can save the news industry – regardless of the medium – then why do we keep making decisions that hack away at our content-gathering and presentation?
2. "The Internet is for breaking news. The newspaper is for stories that provide context and meaning about the news."
Agreed! Yet, many newspapers seem to be shying away from analysis stories. Seems like providing analysis should be our strength. Again, I don't get it.
3. The Internet is "the democratization of publishing. Freedom of the press no longer belongs to those who own one."
How true. And that's part of the problem. These days, just about anybody can publish. So many amateur publishers are giving away their content for free. But a vast amount of that content consists of a) Opinion and commentary that requires no reporting or newsgathering overhead, and b) information that's been aggregated or just plain ol' stolen from news organizations that, in fact, employ professionals. The online reading public loves the fact that these sites are free; they don't want to pay for their news.
We're told the secret to online retailing is to simply don't have a "brick and mortar" store. But how can one run a newspaper – even an online one– without reporters, editors, photographers and designers? It seems like the need for actual content is a tremendous handicap in this new media market.
What worries me is this: The possibility that we're not just witnessing the death of newspapers – we're witnessing the death of news, period.
4. "Most [newspaper Web] sites do not subtract the actual cost of all the "free" news content they get from print."
That's yet another thing I don't get.
Many years ago, I asked the folks at Nando.net where the money would come from. The ads they were selling might cover the cost of the servers and the Web page editors, but what if they actually had to pay for the content they were posting? Was the revenue stream robust enough to cover those costs, too?
Twelve-plus years and four newspapers later, I still don't have an answer.
I hear from folks all over the country; "Our web site is in the black!" Yet, the salaries of the reporters and the photographers and the editors are being applied to the ledger of the print product only, not the online operation. Hey, it all ends up in the publisher's office in the end, so no harm done. But don't tell me that the Web site of the Herald-Journal-Courier-Review is "in the black" when it's not. Not really.
I'd feel a lot better about our future if I could see how we can do top-notch journalism while maintaining our current – or, better yet, higher – ethical standards. But I fear that the change from print to online and, more importantly, the change from print profits to slimmer and more fickle online profits will require us to change the very definition of what we call journalism.
I'm not comfortable with that at all.
The fact that I'm not comfortable isn't necessarily the problem. Being forced out of our comfort zones may bring about some real change in our industry. But I'm troubled that I can't seem to gain even a hazy view of what our industry will be like in 10 or 20 years.
Thanks for giving us a glimpse, Alan. Please keep up the good work.
I agree with you about the tendency to expect the online to grow by its
bootstraps – this is the now classic error portrayed in the Innovator's
Dilemma series of books.
With print revenue starting to soften, the only paths are a downward spiral
of cutting expenses until quality truly suffers, causing further decline--or
boldly to power out of the death spiral by spending on new potential revenue
I wholeheartedly agree with nearly all but a few points:
5. Cash cow. There's something a little off about the way you're using the
metaphor. I like the twisted "eating the flesh" but the Boston Consulting
Group invented the phrase to describe those businesses that were throwing
off large profits, but weren't growing. What's actually happening is that
we're begrudging every penny of expense to ANY aspect of the enterprise to
try to preserve those margins. The New Mexican did buy a new press with new
color capability a couple of years ago, but circ keeps falling, or at least
not growing in proportion to the population growth.
What I advocate is that we have to milk the cash cow to feed the new
business, the Web. And mobile, and niche pubs. (Except for the 'Blue Ocean
Strategy' which makes a different argument about niches.)
6. Drop the price. This is a tough one for me. We just raised our price for
the first time in 12 years--a whole penny a day. (Well, actually less than a
penny a day.) Yes, free newspapers are proliferating, but the other
newspaper in town, the Albuquerque Journal, dropped its price last year to
25 cents, for months--with no apparent impact on sales one way or the other.
On the other hand they have gotten a bit of a boost from a brilliantly
obvious move--they finally changed the name of their Santa Fe wrap zone
edition from "Journal North" to Journal Santa Fe.
For a long time I thought we should do what the airlines did for a long
time--but clearly that model has failed for the airlines: charge what the
market will bear, but pay close attention! So I thought we could probably
charge our "loyal customers" much much more, and give them a truly premium
product, improved in the ways they seem to care about. They won't
drop--they're loyal, right? And ever fewer in number, and except for the
elderly poor, on average probably well able to afford a "luxury"
Now however, I'm impressed by a book I'm just reading "The Blue Ocean
Strategy." It says discover new untapped markets by dropping the costly
aspects of service that don't really matter to the larger pool of
non-customers, and emphasize the few that do. Southwest, [yellowtail] wines,
and Curves have all done this--dropped their costs dramatically by not
trying to compete on the things every one of their competitors was, and
found huge new markets.
That model suggests that the free European tabloid is the way to go. Forget
home delivery, forget the supposedly unbiased "news" and make the paper
openly political, for instance...
7. I don't believe the upsell (even as in our case, not a true freely chosed
upsell, but an allocation in the accounting department) is an illusion. We
get that line all the time from management ("That's not REAL revenue"), so
I've offered to pull the ads down...no takers so far. In fact our stats show
that a significant number of people browse and search the classifieds and
even our "dumb" images of ROP ads online, and whenever there's a glitch in
the online classifieds, people want credit, "because the online is what I
If the Web Dept. got our fair share of the revenue based on readership, I'd
bet we would be getting 40% of classified fees, and maybe 15% of display
ads--instead of the 1 percent or less we currently get.
I do agree that we need to do more to figure out revenue, but it's not
necessary to drop everything else to do it. The fact is that plenty of other
businesses are making plenty of money online--they just don't have the sunk
costs of printing presses, newsrooms, ancient accounting systems last
upgraded when we were all worried about Y2K (so people get two bills in the
mail, there's no place to record email addresses, much less do automated
repetitive billing, etc., etc.), and drivers and racks...
But yes, in the newspaper world. The Newspaper Association sponsored a
webinar more than a year ago entitled "Make More Revenue by Offering Larger,
More Interactive Ads at a Higher CPM." Seems to work.
In any case, ad innovation will always be with us. One style/ad medium
bursts on the scene (TV ads!), then gradually loses effectiveness. Now the
leading edge is ad placement in shows and games. But newspapers are
definitely three or four steps behind. For instance our Web sites gather the
information to target ads better but we don't have the tools--or won't spend
the money to get them.
We also don't want even to consider alternate kinds of revenue. Who makes
the most money on the Web now (after Google)? Catalog companies--because
they have indeed integrated their mailings with their Web sites, and they
sell stuff! We have advertisers who sell stuff, but often they don't have
effective selling Web sites. If we could go beyond just providing a link to
the store, but help them sell their products, they would gladly pay more.
(Google is already taking a commission on the storefront.)
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