It bears repeating that it is not journalism that’s necessarily on the brink. It’s the newspaper business model that isn’t just on the brink, but hurtling back through time to the penny press days.
Yes, the Web makes it way cheaper to present content. And, yes, there are fewer barriers to entry to both content providers and technology. But one plus the other does not equal profits, or even sustaining revenue.
A lot of the discussion at “Journalism on the Brink” at the University of Washington last week (see Part One) focused on how the Web was changing journalism. Seattle’s two daily newspapers, the Times and the soon-to-be-gone Post-Intelligencer, both were represented by non-traditional content providers who reflected the kind of wrong thinking that has doomed the U.S. newspaper industry into a certain shakedown, if not extinction. That is, that news on the Internet should be free, that newspapers need to be everything to everyone, and that aggregation and what I call “celebrity presentation” (folks such as the P-I’s Monica Guzman not reporting on anything, but snarking and Tweeting about what already exists on the Web).
The entire newspaper industry is proving the free-content (ad-based), be-everything model to be an utter failure on the Web, and ventures such as TimesSelect offer some emerging proof that “celebrity journalism” — in this case, opinion and news columns — has limited appeal to online consumers of content. I was a part of two media organizations, Scout.com and Rivals.com, that continue to exist (now owned by NewsCorp and Yahoo, respectively) on a subscription model for niche (college sports, on the main) content. Both have relied on cult-of-personality providers and user-generated content, but gained traction after becoming more reliable and credible sources of news that sports fans wanted and (believed they) needed.
Consumers have proven they will subscribe to reliable and “necessary” (however they define the term, of course) content. I have three examples right in my household: Consumer Reports, HBO and Showtime. As for the latter two, cable, just like the Internet, is a digital delivery system for visual and audio content; in fact, in most cases, ions from both piggyback on the same conduit.
Desperate to escape their death beds and lured by the success and sexiness of iTunes, many newspaper types have latched onto micropayments or pay-per-click as a potential online business model. However, it is difficult to imagine daily city newspapers surviving such a high-wire existence since entertainment lends itself infinitely better to impulse purchases than information. Micropayments could be part of the mix in a future online newspaper business model, but as cream, or supplemental revenue.
As such, advertising also would be a supplemental revenue stream in a subscription-based business model. As we discovered at Scout.com, a vast majority of consumers maintained their subscriptions after making their initial decision to buy. So subscription revenue could be banked, projected and budgeted for production, marketing and other costs.
If newspapers were willing to bust themselves apart into several parts, all under the newspaper’s branding, they would speak to the demand for niche content, as well as overcome what I’ve long thought has been a huge navigational hurdle. Newspapers and other productive online media entities (including my own, ESPN) produce so much content, individual pieces of it can be near-impossible to find. If a given newspaper’s home page simply was a linked listing of the day’s pieces of content, its users would be scrolling beyond their point of tolerance (would this be the “Moses Model” for emulating ancient scrolls?).
One newspaper could potentially produce several sub-sites, each charging a subscription. The newspaper’s home page would serve as a portal to the sub-sites, and each sub-site would have its own discreet look and existence. A newspaper’s offering could be: hyper-local news, regional news, arts and entertainment, then separate sports.
I will plot out a sports example, since it’s the subject matter I know best. In Seattle, the Times or a post-ventilated Post-Intelligencer would offer University of Washington athletics, Mariners (MLB), Seahawks (NFL), maybe Storm (WNBA) and FC Sounders (MSL) to start. I would charge $49.95 per
monthyear for each sport. Each site would offer one main beat writer, one feature writer, one sports columnist, an expert, a multimedia reporter and message boards. My Washington staff would include, for example:
- Beat Writer (fulltime, year-round).
- Features/Sidebar (fulltime, shared with other sports).
- Sports Columnist (shared with other sports).
- Recruiting Expert (partnered through rev and content share with other online entity).
- Multimedia reporter (fulltime, shared with other sports).
- Editor/copy editor (fulltime, shared with other sports).
- Copy editor / production (fulltime, shared with other sports).
My entire sports enterprise would consist of five beat writers, one features/sidebar writer, one sports columnist and two editors. I’d budget payroll and travel at $1.5 million; if I aimed for 7,000 subscriptions (a fraction of each sport’s season-ticket fan base), my annual revenue would be more than $1.7 million, so I’d pass on $200,000, plus ad revenue and micropayments (I’d take advantage of big events such as National Letter of Intent Day in college football, or playoff coverage) to newspaper “parent” for pooled costs such as technological infrastructure, ad sales, marketing and human resources. Maybe I’d have one upper manager. Maybe.
I probably think more entrepreneurially than most journalists because I’ve been part of three startups, including my very own, and all have sold to major media corporations. I must admit, however, that, on the main, I think mostly like a content provider. So, from a business standpoint, I’ve likely missed something (I’d love to know from people who those things might be).
But I can’t be too far off, can I?