Thursday, December 07, 2006

Steal This Post

I like Chip Scanlan, I do. When I read his recent Poynter column on how book publishers are using digitized versions of their product as enticements to the real thing, I got excited.

Yes! Online books. Yes! Dissemination of information. Yes! Technology. Go Project Gutenberg go!

But when I read his parallel to newspapers, I fell off the Chip Ship:

Capturing and keeping audience is a challenge newspapers have been grappling with ever since they started to migrate printed content to their Web sites. With a few notable exceptions -- The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times' TimesSelect, for example -- newspapers have been giving their online content away for free, all the while bemoaning the lack of online revenue to make up for flagging ad sales in their print products.

What if they were to adopt the Doctorow approach, preferring an online audience and banking on the likelihood that some will become paying customers? I've heard predictions that newspaper editors are going to have to accept the reality that breaking news will move to the Web. But that seismic change is softened by a parallel scenario. The newspaper will become the home of narratives, investigative reports, and explanatory journalism -- coverage that is both broad and deep and, if Doctorow is correct, worth paying for. Who knows -- perhaps newspapers will once again become the home for serial novels.

Look, I'm all for serial novels in papers. It saves us from the next bestselling Nelson DeMille tome. But newspapers simply cannot expect to gain paper circulation by offering free digital product.

Think about it: When's the last time you picked up an old book?

OK, now when's the last time you picked up an old newspaper?

Exactly. There's little replay value (outside of academic reference) for the paper. But the book will continue to be thumbed through, corners rounded and pages bent. News (and features, and opinion, and the rest of the skeleton of the modern newspaper) is just too fleeting; too temporal. But newspapers are complaining anyway because they didn't take the time to make the internet profitable.

Stop resting on your laurels, inkheads!

In one of my first college journalism classes, I was told that the price of newspapers isn't really a huge factor when it comes to covering the price to publish. Advertisements were really what brought the moola in.

That's where TimesSelect and its ilk have it wrong - they put the cost on the consumer before the advertisers. Digital revenue is not yet valued high enough that it will entirely support a newspaper (paper in the sense of information-shopping, not the actual print).

Look at the traffic gets - the online ad revenue from alone should be enough to pay for an entire B-market paper.

(Maybe it is. I certainly don't know.)

But, coming back to Scanlan's article, if a newspaper publisher has any connection to the modern world - and he should, he works for a newspaper - he'd know that offering free digital goods in expectation of rising print revenue is about as smart as telling Howie Mandel "No Deal" when you've got $700,000 on the board and the man on the phone is trash-talking you.

On the Achenblog, user "raysmom" posted this convincing analysis of why the dead-tree version is still viable:

Things I love about the dead-trees version:
1. I can read it on the train without a computer in my lap. And it won't lose connection in the tunnels!
2. I'm not limited in my reading choices to those things I THOUGHT I wanted to read. Some of the greatest articles are about things I'd never heard of before.
3. No time required to download comics.
4. It has Haverty's ads on Sunday so Hubby and I can play "Which Piece is the Ugliest?"
5. It comes in a nice plastic bag just the size and thickness required for picking up dog poo.
Seriously, the thought that I might have to go online for all my news gives me the shakes. I spend enough time on the computer as it is.
Things the Editorialiste wished old-time publishers (and "raysmom") knew about the information business:

1. People play with cell phones and Blackberrys the entire train ride. Think about offering digital downloads on the fly so they get the paper just before entering the tunnel.
2. Actually create a useful linking system between articles so that readers come across stories they never read. Realize turning the page of a newspaper is the same action as clicking a digital link to a new section, without skipping article jumps (because hey, aren't those fun?).
3. Put comics in graphic formats that are quick to load. JPEG works.
4. FIGURE OUT ADVERTISING. Make it as enticing as it is now, or at least leave advertisers to redistribute their funds so more people are thinking about better ways to advertise online besides Salon's stupid splash ads.
5. There will always, always be another plastic bag for poo.

I challenge any major metropolitan newspaper to give up their print edition entirely (maybe with the exception of the Sunday edition, which is probably the only edition that people sit down to read over time). No printing presses, no deliverymen, only a masthead, editorial content, and a web hosting fee.

Then will newspapers be profitable?


Chip Scanlan said...

Thanks for reading my column and for such a spirited and rich response, Andrew. Like Thanksgiving dinner, I need time to digest it, but am grateful for the hearty diet of opinions.

The Editorialiste said...


Thanks for responding and actually reading! Believe it or not, it's not so much a criticism of a point you brought up as a particular concept I noticed that I think wouldn't work in today's (the future's?) version of the press. What I forgot to say regarding your column is this: if a newspaper gave up its breaking news for the more literary content you mentioned, would it be a newspaper anymore?

Thanks again for reading and digesting.