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.