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Online News

Tom Patton“Editor and Publisher” reported this week that all but one of the top 25 newspapers in the country lost readership during the past six months, and some of the drops were dramatic.

The only Florida paper on the top 25 list is The Tampa Tribune, with a reported Monday-Friday home delivery circulation of 240,147, down 10.7%. A little digging around finds that The Miami Herald is down 23%, reaching just over 162 thousand daily readers, according the blog “McClatchy Watch”, which cites the Audit Bureau of Circulation. More people read the Orlando Sentinel, just over 206 thousand, but that still represents a 9.4% drop according to the Orlando Business Journal.

The only paper in the Top 25 to gain circulation was the number 1 publication on the list, The Wall Street Journal, which saw a marginal 0.61% gain in readership.

While the decline is certainly in part due to the economy, some blame it at least in part on the fact that so many newspapers give away their news for free on the Internet, and feel that the end of free online news, at least from publications that still buy ink by the barrel, is about to end. While that may be the case, I don’t think it’s the solution to the newspaper industry’s woes.

Online subscriptions are a tricky thing. Music services have, in some cases, made them work, but the micro-charges per song, or in the case of the iPhone per app, are pretty reasonable. And at the end of the day, you have something you can keep, granted an ethereal collection of ones and zeros that play a song or connect you to Facebook on your phone, but you have something.

That may be a bad example because the Facebook app is free, but you get the point.

Print publications have tried charging for content in the past, and no one has yet hit on the successful model. The New York Times tried their “select” option for some content, and online readers stayed away in droves. The WSJ has tried charging for content as well, but even the well-heeled readers of the nation’s pre-eminent business paper didn’t want to pay for what they had been able to get for free.

Which could leave the newspapers hoping to turn their websites into a revenue stream in a bit of a conundrum. If, as they have proven time and again, readers are unwilling to pay for their online content, and fewer people are buying the physical paper, that means fewer eyes seeing the advertising, which is, and has always been, the primary revenue stream. With fewer people looking at the ads, they’ll be able to charge less for them, which leaves less revenue, and the first to be let go are usually the journalists who create the content in the first place.

Now what do you do?

It’s fairly obvious that there are going to have to be some changes in how news is delivered, and how companies that produce news make money. The traditional model does not seem to be sustainable for the long term. Advertisers, it would seem, still don’t believe that online ads have the same impact as print ads, because anecdotally I hear that they don’t seem to be willing to pay as much for them. Part of that is because the methods for counting individual readers online are amorphous at best, so it’s difficult for advertisers and agencies to come up with the all-important “cost per thousand” that drives what they’re willing to pay. Counting “hits” is pointless. Page views or unique visitors are a better indication, but there are different interpretations as to how to count them. Until that issue is resolved, it’s going to be difficult to make any revenue model work.

The larger question, though, is why some are able to make the subscription model work and some aren’t, even in the larger media business milieu. Cable and satellite television seem to be going along fine, while satellite radio continues to struggle and lose money. You don’t hear about broadcast outlets planning to charge for their online content, and much of their broadcast news video is available for viewing online free of charge. You do often see an (unskippable) advertisement before the story plays, but that’s a 15-30 second inconvenience. Video takes up far more bandwidth and storage space than text and .jpgs. I don’t know of anyone who would pay to listen to the radio online, unless it was their favorite station of all time from a place far away. And even then, radio has gotten so homogenous and devoid of personality for the most part that what would be the point … but that’s another column.

You’re reading this on a free, online news service. This e-pub (and that’s part of the problem too. How do you call this a “newspaper”?) relies on advertising to support it. Would you read it if you had to give us a credit card number to access the content? Would you pay a per-story micro-charge to see just the stories you wanted to read? Or would you say “Hey, that used to be free! I ain’t paying!” and move on to try to find it where it was free?

Or even worse, would you give up on the news all together? Because my concern is that could be the eventual outcome as we try to figure out what you want, and how to get it to you. A population that is less informed, and more apathetic.

And that is a bad thing no matter how you slice it.

1 Responses »

  1. I have tried to predict the next move of the Internet since its inception. Google is dominating in adword advertising delivering exactly what the view is looking for at the moment. People paying for adwords can capture their required audience in moments anywhere in the world. The question is, can they turn it into income? Google is the big cast net that is gathering all the online ad money.

    Now for newspapers. I was one who paid for NYTimes select information. But, I was happy when they withdrew the fees.

    Our family read (and paid for) the printed Florida Times-Union every day for 30 years. They valued the paper more than we did. Even paying for three years in advance, the price was enormous. We gave it up for 8 morning online papers (including Jacksonville.com Florida Times-Union online). Instead of looking over the paper, we tilt the laptops back to talk to each other.

    It is my opinion that the Genie is out if the bottle. The papers have given it away and they can't go back. Clicking on Google News displays all the pertinent news locally, nationwide and internationally. FREE

    I've got one creative idea for the papers. Try hiring reporters to create content that readers would like to read. On any given Sunday, circle the real Jacksonville writers in the Florida Times-Union. You'll be amazed at the number. They buy most of the stories from other sources. And the articles local writers cover are about murders, rapes, bad cops, bad businessmen and every other disgusting bit of news. SO SAD.

    People like Austin Cassidy are going to prosper from this move away from print.

    Like the big guy at Google reported last week, with mega high speed internet in five years, television and computing will merge. Sadly, I think at that time our VIDEO ONLY public will stop reading all together.

    My suggestion to the papers is to buy HD Cameras and create audio/video content. That is what will sell now and in the future. Oh, and create a story, not a sound bite. I guess that would make them a media station and not a paper anymore.

    I remember the day back in the early 70's when the typesetters went on strike because of word processors. You cannot stop progress.

    I'm waiting for the day that the AP has its lunch eaten. My latest prediction is that a couple of guys like you and me could enroll freelance writers, video gurus and photographers from around the world and create our own AP that we sell to guys like Austin. For the price of a hit song. Let's call it YouNEWS or YouWire or Inews.

    Remember, we've been held captive since rice paper by people who want to control what we read. The chains are off and the public is going wild.

    Unless they come up with 3D newspaper, the GAME IS OVER! There is no model good enough for newspapers to work.

    Newspapers like the American Car business died 10 years ago. No one told them about it though. RIP