Monday, December 22, 2008

'Putting content on the Web would destroy our paper'

In today's New York Times, Media Equation columnist David Carr explains the story of the TriCityNews of Monmouth County, N.J., who he says has prospered by shunning the Web entirely:

"Why would I put anything on the Web?” asked Dan Jacobson, the publisher and owner of the newspaper. “I don’t understand how putting content on the Web would do anything but help destroy our paper. Why should we give our readers any incentive whatsoever to not look at our content along with our advertisements, a large number of which are beautiful and cheap full-page ads?"
Which, given the current state of media affairs, is a shocking pronouncement.

Carr elaborates on his column, describing a way of thinking that is best summed up as, "if it works, work it." He mentions John Koblin's New York Observer piece (perhaps this one, though Carr's article sadly and ironically doesn't link) describing how business magazine competitors Forbes, Portfolio and Fortune went through layoffs, with the Web getting hit the hardest. He mentions popular new media poster boy Nick Denton of Gawker Media, who predicted a 40 percent decline in Web display advertising.

Carr's solution in this week's media equation? "It's probably not a great time to be indexing into the Web either."

In other words, he doesn't really digest it at all.

David Carr is a smart guy. I've been lucky enough to meet the guy a few years back, before the book, back when the Carpetbagger was a new phenomenon.

But I don't think he quite solved this equation.

While his column is lean, and his space limited to explain nuance behind the situation, I really don't think he adequately explains the references he draws between very different types of publications. For example:

When it comes to brand advertising, print has a strong track record. Advertisers like the analog presentation in TriCityNews for the same reason they come back in droves to Vogue.

Well that's a real tough connection to draw. The TriCityNews is a local newspaper; Vogue is a national luxury fashion magazine. TriCityNews' advertisers are local and faithful; Vogue's advertisements are a part of a major campaign -- and when times are tough, luxury retailers pull back in a big way. Vogue has the advantage of being a glossy magazine, in which nearly nothing is "news" by any stretch of the imagination. And while I don't know anything about TriCityNews beyond the scope of this article, it seems to be a local neighborhood rag more for local interest than breaking news. And I suspect -- correct me if I'm wrong, Mr. Jacobsen -- that advertising doesn't fluctuate nearly as much as Vogue's, which, by the way, is often sold as an advertising package alongside sibling mags such as Glamour and W.

My point is this: To connect the lessons learned from this small publication that "the Web is to be avoided" to the larger media landscape -- even if only inadvertently implied by the very publication of Carr's article -- is to be misleading.

Let's look at some of the references:

The business magazines: All three mentioned are owned by major magazine houses (Forbes is Forbes, Portfolio is Conde Nast, Fortune is Time Inc.), and all three bring in luxury advertisers to a degree. Forbes has been in need of reinvention for awhile, and its website is hard on the eyes. Portfolio is a new magazine that never quite distinguished itself among the pack and whose publisher deliberately avoided investing online. Fortune is a Time flagship magazine but whose website is popular but woefully underused as a confusing catch-all pot for Money and Fortune's material.

Gawker Media: A collection of upstart blogs, Gawker is popular in major metropolitan areas (especially New York) but not much elsewhere. Gawker sites generally rely on being "first" in a string of reposting of news articles from other sources. Occasionally the sites have original commentary -- Denton himself contributes the site's most digested thought and Hamilton Nolan often comments just with his selection of stories -- but generally, it's a site that thrives on being the online trendsetter. Advertising has been experimental throughout the sites' lifetimes; Denton hasn't really settled on a system for more than a year's time and any sites that don't work from a financial standpoint are quickly spun off (Consumerist, Wonkette, etc.), no matter how popular.

The Wall Street Journal: Big media newspaper whose site, unlike almost all, including the Times, charges for most access. Paid subscriptions are up 7 percent from a year ago, and the implication is that with advertisements down, it's easier to get money from the readers themselves.

So my point is that it's unfair to lump together, even in passing reference, a family of breaking news and commentary bloga that exist only online, three magazines with different root problems (but the same financial symptoms) and a local city paper whose readership simply doesn't use the Web to read truly local news. Contrasting that with the sole exception in the news business -- the WSJ, whose rabidly loyal and wealthy readership continues to pay up front -- seems to be even more misleading.

(And for the record, when I want to read a Wall Street Journal article that's behind the pay wall, I just go without. The Times usually has a similar treatment to a story anyway.)

When you read any article, the first thing you should ask yourself is "why?" As in, "what is the point of this?" Usually, it's general interest, or news, or contextual.

I read this column looking for the big "So what?" and all I got were contradictory anecdotes. I didn't get an equation -- I got an expression.

Which may have been Carr's intent -- to say, look at this one publisher in the midst of others! But what I fear is that the lesson implied by the article is that the Web isn't quite the Holy Grail publishers should be chasing after. And for that, I disagree -- perhaps a tiny local paper need not use the Web (though having contact information and subscription information would be useful) for its news content, but all the other national publications must, just by their very nature.

To boot, I think the economy came a little to early in the print-to-Web transition, and with funds at risk, people are pulling back into something that's comfortable: the print business model. All of these publications, be it newspapers or magazines or online, have had 10 years or more to really sit down and think about the Web as a new business model. And yet so many have failed to think outside of the box. So it's a matter of confidence: when the money's at risk, they slash online staff, thinking that those readers and the staff that write for them are worth less to the publication. And that's true. But they're worth more to the brand and its future, and that's the misstep I see happening.

After all, if we're counting pennies, pixels are a lot cheaper than paper.

1 comment:

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