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January 06 2011

19:00

Dallas Morning News publisher on paywall plans: “This is a big risk”

In talking about the Dallas Morning News’ plans to begin charging for digital content next month, Jim Moroney is surprisingly candid about the decision and the economics of the industry. When the publisher of the News told his staff about the decision, he said they must be prepared to be ridiculed and vilified for putting their content behind a paywall.

“This is a big risk — I’m not confident we’re going to succeed,” Moroney told me. “But we’ve got to try something. We’ve got to try different things.”

Beginning February 15, the News will beginning charging for a majority of its content across its soon-to-be-redesigned website, its iPhone app, and a forthcoming iPad app. Print subscribers will get full access to everything for $33.95 a month, while those who eschew the paper can buy a subscription to the website and apps for $16.95. What’s unclear at the moment is how exactly the digital subscription will work given that Apple’s app store doesn’t allow for subscriptions (at least not yet, but that could be changing soon).

The move is not entirely a surprise given that other large metro papers, The New York Times and the Boston Globe, are developing paywalls. It’s also less of a surprise since A.H. Belo, parent company of the News, said in 2009 that it was considering switching some of its papers to paid sites. (A plan for the Providence Journal to go all-pay appears to have been changed or pushed back.)

What will readers have to pay for? Dallasnews.com exclusive reporting, for one thing, including its scoops on the biggest show around, Dallas Cowboys football. Free stuff will include breaking news, wire stories, obits, and blogs (which, curiously, could include sports coverage of the Cowboys).

Moroney is pragmatic about the paper going to a paid model. “It’s not an over-the-cliff strategy,” he said. “If this works, great, it’ll be fantastic. If it doesn’t, we can go back to providing access at a lower price or free.”

It’s an experimental approach that marks a shifted attitude toward paid content. In 2009, Moroney was one of several newspaper executives to testify at a Senate hearing on the future of newspapers. As he put it at the time, “If The Dallas Morning News today put up a paywall over its content, people would go to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.”

Now, though, as he sees it, the News and other papers have no choice but to change. “I don’t see impression-based advertising, the thing that paid bills for newspapers for so long, as supportable in the long run for a newspaper,” he said in our phone conversation. Moroney said he expects that pageviews will drop by half once the paywall is up, which is no small consideration given that the News has roughly 40 million pageviews a month. But even with growing pageviews and modest gains in online ad revenue in the industry, CPM prices are still low and ad inventory is up, Moroney said. And as he told Ken Doctor in a Newsonomics post last August, the days of newspapers living off the old “80/20″ rule are long gone.

Over the last few years, the News has reined in its circulation from far-flung areas (sorry, readers in Arkansas and Oklahoma), cut back third party copy sales, and increased its home delivery price, all with the idea of turning the Dallas Morning News (in all of its forms) into a product that makes money off specific, targeted audiences — rather than one that makes money on volume, Moroney said.

What the paper hopes will make the difference is a tiered system of access, from individual apps to the digital-only bundle and the full-blown subscription. In debuting an iPad app, it made sense to make all the paper’s digital offerings paid, Moroney said — otherwise, why would someone pay for an app when they can access DallasNews.com on a smartphone or tablet’s web browser? That becomes especially true as more publishers build HTML5 sites that can offer an engaging app-esque experience. “You have a website you can access with a browser that has the same look and feel of an app. How can you expect people to pay for one,” he noted, and not the other?

In its research to prepare for the site, the News found that there was willingness to pay for access to the site or various apps. While, because of the relative newness of the iPad, Moroney said he takes the data with a grain of salt, it was still positive enough to encourage the paper to create a paid strategy for its digital products.

“I don’t think we can wait,” Moroney said. “The business has enough uncertainty around it.”

August 05 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of the fading 80/20 rule

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Jim Moroney thinks he may be on to a new formula. It’s not as great — not nearly as profitable — as that old newspaper formula, but it’s one that may sustain his company into the future.

“The Dallas Morning News now gets 38 percent of its revenue from circulation, 54 percent from advertising, and 8 percent from contract printing plus,” the Morning News’ publisher tells me.

Those numbers are a far cry from the way it used to be for newspaper companies. They long used one of the many 80/20 rules out there: 80 percent of their revenue came from advertising, and 20% came from circulation.

Now, as ad revenue has been on a precipitous decline — down from almost $50 billion in 2000 to $24 billion in 2009, and still sliding a bit more — that old formula is out the window.

While the digital news world seems consumed with conversations about paywalls and memberships, it is old-fashioned print circulation revenue that is the gainer in the post-80/20 formulas. Sure, advertising’s ski slope decline has greatly altered the 80/20. So has, though, the significant up-pricing of both subscriptions and single copies over the past three years.

At the Morning News, Moroney — aided by research from consumer products company The Modellers — took monthly subscriptions from $18 to $30, in one fell swoop. Many other publishers have upped prices, though most have done it more gradually. Pick up a slim copy anywhere in your travels, and you see it now costs 75 cents or a buck; it used to be the “25-cent or 35-cent?” discussion that consumed executive committees.

The impact of the pricing moves is still uncertain. Short-term, they seemed to work. Though circulation continued to decline, circulation revenue was mildly up. The central notion: Get those with the newspaper habit to pay more of the freight, figuring that few would drop the newspaper because it cost two Grande Mochas more.

As we look at last quarter’s financial reports, we have to wonder how the up-pricing of circulation will work. As many companies showed a decline in circulation revenue in the second quarter as showed an increase.

A few of the numbers:

  • McClatchy: down 2.5%
  • Lee: down 4.4%
  • Gatehouse: down 2.5%

Moroney’s own company, A.H. Belo, of which he is an executive vice-president, reported a 6.6-percent increase. Additionally, The New York Times Company reported a 3.2-percent increase and Scripps a 4.5-percent increase (from 1st quarter data; 2nd not out until Aug. 9). Significantly, I think, each of those companies may have done a better job of minimizing newsroom cuts and reinvesting — at least a little — in that now higher-priced product.

While the jury is out on the stickiness of price increases, it’s clear the old 80/20 rule is gone.

Broadly, in research I conduct annually for Outsell, we track the global moves in ad, circulation and digital revenue. In 2009, circulation revenue was up more than a point over 2008 to 41 percent. Significantly, Japanese publishers continue to get a majority of their revenue from circulation, while much of Europe and UK see their percentages in 35-45 percent range.

ln the U.S., let’s just pull some data from the second-quarter reports. They show:

  • New York Times: Circ: 40%, Ads: 53%, Other: 7%
  • Scripps: Circ: 28%; Ads: 67%; Other: 5%
  • Gatehouse: Circ: 27% , Ads: 71%, Other 2%
  • Lee: Circ: 24%, Ads: 70%, Other: 6%
  • McClatchy: Circ: 20%; Ads: 76%, Other: 4%

Several factors will continue to push and pull the new ad/circ breakdown.

For one thing, we’re moving into an era of “reader revenue,” one that will roll up print subscriptions, single print copies, digital pay per view, digital subscriptions, all-access (across platform) subscriptions, memberships and more. For a next generation of reader revenue, tablet access is the big prize in the sights of publishers; witness, for instance, the likelihood of a News Corp. “iPad division.” Further, advertising will continue morph greatly, as digital marketing replaces some of that spend, enlarging and changing definitions.

Finally, don’t forget “other.” For A.H. Belo, it’s 8 percent now, but growing at at 35-percent clip. As news companies find “other” ways to make “other” revenue, we’ll see new formulas begin to make sense.

July 15 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of the dead cat bounce

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

The season’s upon us, as newspaper and media companies announce their second-quarter earnings. At least some of the companies will announce: fewer than used to a couple of years ago, as Tribune has gone private (and banko), metros like Philly and Minneapolis have moved to private hands, MediaNews releases less information than it used to, and Dow Jones’ results are less decipherable, aggregated within News Corp. news division results.

Still, Gannett — the largest U.S. newspaper company — leads off Friday. The New York Times Co. follows on July 22. McClatchy comes in on July 29. We’ll also hear from A.H. Belo, Scripps, Lee, and Media General, dates TBA.

Let’s get ahead of it a bit and see what we can look for in the announcements and what that will mean for the news industry. Let’s look at a newsonomics primer of this struggling industry as the rest of the economy haphazardly improves around it.

I could call this post “The Newsonomics of newspaper quarterly earnings reports,” but much better is the story of the moment: How much will newspaper companies tout — and how will the reduced-but-remaining corps of those who cover the industry report — how positive their dead cat bounce is. “Dead cat bounce” is a phrase you hear — confidentially — from some newspaper executives. It’s an old Wall Street term, observing that even long-declining stocks will bounce a bit sometimes.

Let’s recall that last year’s ad revenue results had all the spring of a dead cat — down some $10 billion and 27 percent. So take a dead cat and pump a little life in it, with things less worse than they were in the disastrous 2009 and you get a bit of a bounce — but not one to crow about. Unless, that is, you don’t have much else to crow about, and that’s that’s the predicament, circa mid-2010, of most newspaper companies. They don’t have a big, positive story to talk about.

So, consider this a parsing guide to what we’ll hear in the next month:

  • How much was the second quarter down from 2Q 2009? First-quarter numbers were down largely in single digits, and that seemed a relief after comparable double-digit declines. We heard such CEO parsing as “improvement in comparables” and hopefully spun statements such as “Domestic classified advertising was just seven percent lower than March a year ago.” The problem: The rest of the economy, and even the TV and online ad economies, are all showing real growth — and taking market share from newspapers. Newspapers’ continuing inability to find real arithmetic growth doubles down on the theory that these revenue changes are more structural than cyclical — and that the Great Recession may have accelerated newspapers’ downward fortunes. Are there any positive growth numbers to report? Which categories may be turning positive — maybe national or retail display ads — as the sagging economy continues to plague the traditional classified strengths of auto, recruitment, and real estate?
  • How much will the prepared remarks focus on cost or debt reduction and how much on revenue growth? Play Earnings Bingo and count the comments involving “debt reduction” or “cost restructuring” as compared to “growth.”
  • How much of revenue is now coming from digital, and what’s the digital growth rate? Most newspaper companies increased their percentage of overall revenue attributed to digital to the 12-15 percent range in 2009 — but that was largely because print revenues dropped so precipitously. The news industry is becoming more digitally oriented, but still has a long way to go. Still, it’s a useful percentage to know; few companies report it routinely, but often mention it in Q&A. Most importantly, is the digital business growing, and at what rate, after being just north or south of flat in Q1? Such growth is key to these companies’ future.
  • How much of that digital revenue is coming from digital-only sales? McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt was the first to make a point of digital-only sales, as it approached half of total digital revenue. Pruitt’s right; it’s an important barometer of where the business is going, not where it’s been. Since the mid-’90s, the industry has been overly reliant on “bundled” ad packages of print/online. Now as the digital marketing revolution matures, a number of companies — often spurred by the Yahoo Newspaper Consortium — are really pushing online-only packages.
  • How much revenue is coming from emerging marketing services business initiatives? Tribune and Gannett are among the leaders at selling website building, search engine optimization services, and more to small and medium-sized businesses. Will we hear about this big new push — and how many dollars it is starting to drive?
  • Is there any circulation revenue growth? Circulation numbers have continued to plummet, while newspaper companies have priced up substantially. The overall notion: Get long-standing, habituated print subscribers to pay more of the freight. For The New York Times, the strategy has worked and circulation revenue has continued to grow (up 11 percent in Q1). For other companies, Gannett (circ revenue down 5 percent) and Lee (down 4 percent), the math isn’t working as well. Pricing up and losing both revenue and circulation numbers that are the lifeblood of selling advertising is not the outcome desired. So watch circulation revenue numbers in the reports. If they’re still negative, that’d be an indication that newspapers’ circulation pricing power is waning.
  • Do we hear any strategies discussed for the second half of 2010 or into 2011? Any iPad/tablet plans or development? The discussions surrounding the earnings calls can focus just on numbers, sometimes arcanely so, or get into actual strategies that may lead from the tepid now to a better tomorrow. How much strategy do these companies have and/or are willing to share with investors?

Image by Eric Skiff used under a Creative Commons license.

January 07 2010

19:11

Keeping Martin honest: Checking on Langeveld’s predictions for 2009

[A little over one year ago, our friend Martin Langeveld made a series of predictions about what 2009 would bring for the news business — in particular the newspaper business. I even wrote about them at the time and offered up a few counter-predictions. Here's Martin's rundown of how he fared. Up next, we'll post his predictions for 2010. —Josh]

PREDICTION: No other newspaper companies will file for bankruptcy.

WRONG. By the end of 2008, only Tribune had declared. Since then, the Star-Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Journal Register Company, and the Philadelphia newspapers made trips to the courthouse, most of them right after the first of the year.

PREDICTION: Several cities, besides Denver, that today still have multiple daily newspapers will become single-newspaper towns.

RIGHT: Hearst closed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (in print, at least), Gannett closed the Tucson Citizen, making those cities one-paper towns. In February, Clarity Media Group closed the Baltimore Examiner, a free daily, leaving the field to the Sun. And Freedom is closing the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, which cuts out a nearby competitor in the Phoenix metro area.

PREDICTION: Whatever gets announced by the Detroit Newspaper Partnership in terms of frequency reduction will be emulated in several more cities (including both single and multiple newspaper markets) within the first half of the year.

WRONG: Nothing similar to the Detroit arrangement has been tried elsewhere.

PREDICTION: Even if both papers in Detroit somehow maintain a seven-day schedule, we’ll see several other major cities and a dozen or more smaller markets cut back from six or seven days to one to four days per week.

WRONG, mostly: We did see a few other outright closings including the Ann Arbor News (with a replacement paper published twice a week), and some eliminations of one or two publishing days. But only the Register-Pajaronian of Watsonville, Calif. announced it will go from six days to three, back in January.

PREDICTION: As part of that shift, some major dailies will switch their Sunday package fully to Saturday and drop Sunday publication entirely. They will see this step as saving production cost, increasing sales via longer shelf life in stores, improving results for advertisers, and driving more weekend website traffic. The “weekend edition” will be more feature-y, less news-y.

WRONG: This really falls in the department of wishful thinking; it’s a strategy I’ve been advocating for the last year or so to follow the audience to the web, jettison the overhead of printing and delivery, but retain the most profitable portion of the print product.

PREDICTION: There will be at least one, and probably several, mergers between some of the top newspaper chains in the country. Top candidate: Media News merges with Hearst. Dow Jones will finally shed Ottaway in a deal engineered by Boston Herald owner (and recently-appointed Ottaway chief) Pat Purcell.

WRONG AGAIN, but this one is going back into the 2010 hopper. Lack of capital by most of the players, and the perception or hope that values may improve, put a big damper on mergers and acquisitions, but there should be renewed interest ahead.

PREDICTION: Google will not buy the New York Times Co., or any other media property. Google is smart enough to stick with its business, which is organizing information, not generating content. On the other hand, Amazon may decide that they are in the content business…And then there’s the long shot possibility that Michael Bloomberg loses his re-election bid next fall, which might generate a 2010 prediction, if NYT is still independent at that point.

RIGHT about Google, and NOT APPLICABLE about Bloomberg (but Bloomberg did acquire BusinessWeek). The Google-NYT pipe dream still gets mentioned on occasion, but it won’t happen.

PREDICTION: There will be a mini-dotcom bust, featuring closings or fire sales of numerous web enterprises launched on the model of “generate traffic now, monetize later.”

WRONG, at least on the mini-bust scenario. Certainly there were closings of various digital enterprises, but it didn’t look like a tidal wave.

PREDICTION: The fifty newspaper execs who gathered at API’s November Summit for an Industry in Crisis will not bother to reconvene six months later (which would be April) as they agreed to do.

RIGHT. There was a very low-key round two with fewer participants in January, without any announced outcomes, and that was it. [Although there was also the May summit in Chicago, which featured many of the same players. —Ed.]

PREDICTION: Newspaper advertising revenue will decline year-over-year 10 percent in the first quarter and 5 percent in the second. It will stabilize, or nearly so, in the second half, but will have a loss for the year. For the year, newspapers will slip below 12 percent of total advertising revenue (from 15 percent in 2007 and around 13.5 percent in 2008). But online advertising at newspaper sites will resume strong upward growth.

WRONG, and way too optimistic. Full-year results won’t be known for months, but the first three quarters have seen losses in the 30 percent ballpark. Gannett and New York Times have suggested Q4 will come in “better” at “only” about 25 percent down. My 12 percent reference was to newspaper share of the total ad market, a metric that has become harder to track this year due to changes in methodology at McCann, but the actual for 2009 ultimately will sugar out at about 10 percent.

PREDICTION: Newspaper circulation, aggregated, will be steady (up or down no more than 1 percent) in each of the 6-month ABC reporting periods ending March 31 and September 30. Losses in print circulation will be offset by gains in ABC-countable paid digital subscriptions, including facsimile editions and e-reader editions.

WRONG, and also way too optimistic. The March period drop was 7.1 percent, the September drop was 10.6 percent, and digital subscription didn’t have much impact.

PREDICTION: At least 25 daily newspapers will close outright. This includes the Rocky Mountain News, and it will include other papers in multi-newspaper markets. But most closings will be in smaller markets.

WRONG, and too pessimistic. About half a dozen daily papers closed for good during the year.

PREDICTION: One hundred or more independent local startup sites focused on local news will be launched. A number of them will launch weekly newspapers, as well, repurposing the content they’ve already published online. Some of these enterprises are for-profit, some are nonprofit. There will be some steps toward formation of a national association of local online news publishers, perhaps initiated by one of the journalism schools.

Hard to tell, but probably RIGHT. Nobody is really keeping track of how many hyperlocals are active, or their comings and goings. An authoritative central database would be a Good Thing.

PREDICTION: The Dow Industrials will be up 15 percent for the year. The stocks of newspaper firms will beat the market.

RIGHT. The Dow finished the year up 18.8 percent. (This prediction is the one that got the most “you must be dreaming” reactions last year.

And RIGHT about newspapers beating the market (as measured by the Dow Industrials), which got even bigger laughs from the skeptics. There is no index of newspaper stocks, but on the whole, they’ve done well. It helps to have started in the sub-basement at year-end 2008, of course, which was the basis of my prediction. Among those beating the Dow, based on numbers gathered by Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, were New York Times (+69%), AH Belo (+164%), Lee Enterprises (+746%), McClatchy (+343%), Journal Communications (+59%), EW Scripps (+215%), Media General (+348%), and Gannett (+86%). Only Washington Post Co. (+13%) lagged the market. Not listed, of course, are those still in bankruptcy.

PREDICTION: At least one publicly-owned newspaper chain will go private.

NOPE.

PREDICTION: A survey will show that the median age of people reading a printed newspaper at least 5 days per week is is now over 60.

UNKNOWN: I’m not aware of a 2009 survey of this metric, but I’ll wager that the median age figure is correct.

PREDICTION: Reading news on a Kindle or other e-reader will grow by leaps and bounds. E-readers will be the hot gadget of the year. The New York Times, which currently has over 10,000 subscribers on Kindle, will push that number to 75,000. The Times will report that 75 percent of these subscribers were not previously readers of the print edition, and half of them are under 40. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post will not be far behind in e-reader subscriptions.

UNKNOWN, as far as the subscription counts go: newspapers and Kindle have not announced e-reader subscription levels during the year. The Times now has at least 30,000, as does the Wall Street Journal (according to a post by Staci Kramer in November; see my comment there as well). There have been a number of new e-reader introductions, but none of them look much better than their predecessors as news readers. My guess would be that by year end, the Times will have closer to 40,000 Kindle readers and the Journal 35,000. During 2010, 75,000 should be attainable for the Times, especially counting all e-editions (which include the Times Reader and 53,353 weekdays and 34,435 Sundays for the six months ending Sept. 30.

PREDICTION: The advent of a color Kindle (or other brand color e-reader) will be rumored in November 2009, but won’t be introduced before the end of the year.

RIGHT: plenty of rumors, but no color e-reader, except Fujitsu’s Flepia, which is expensive, experimental, and only for sale in Japan.

PREDICTION: Some newspaper companies will buy or launch news aggregation sites. Others will find ways to collaborate with aggregators.

RIGHT: Hearst launched its topic pages site LMK.com. And various companies are working with EVRI, Daylife and others to bring aggregated feeds to their sites.

PREDICTION: As newsrooms, with or without corporate direction, begin to truly embrace an online-first culture, outbound links embedded in news copy, blog-style, as well as standalone outbound linking, will proliferate on newspaper sites. A reporter without an active blog will start to be seen as a dinosaur.

MORE WISHFUL THINKING, although there’s progress. Many reporters still don’t blog, still don’t tweet, and many papers are still on content management systems that inhibit embedded links.

PREDICTION: The Reuters-Politico deal will inspire other networking arrangements whereby one content generator shares content with others, in return for right to place ads on the participating web sites on a revenue-sharing basis.

YES, we’re seeing more sharing of content, with various financial arrangements.

PREDICTION: The Obama administration will launch a White House wiki to help citizens follow the Changes, and in time will add staff blogs, public commenting, and other public interaction.

NOT SO FAR, although a new Open Government Initiative was recently announced by the White House. This grew out of some wiki-like public input earlier in the year.

PREDICTION: The Washington Post will launch a news wiki with pages on current news topics that will be updated with new developments.

YES — kicked off in January, it’s called WhoRunsGov.com.

PREDICTION: The New York Times will launch a sophisticated new Facebook application built around news content. The basic idea will be that the content of the news (and advertising) package you get by being a Times fan on Facebook will be influenced by the interests and social connections you have established on Facebook. There will be discussion of, if not experimentation with, applying a personal CPM based on social connections, which could result in a rewards system for participating individuals.

NO. Although the Times has continued to come out with innovative online experiments, this was not one of them.

PREDICTION: Craigslist will partner with a newspaper consortium in a project to generate and deliver classified advertising. There will be no new revenue in the model, but the goal will be to get more people to go to newspaper web sites to find classified ads. There will be talk of expanding this collaboration to include eBay.

NO. This still seems like a good idea, but probably it should have happened in 2006 and the opportunity has passed.

PREDICTION: Look for some big deals among the social networks. In particular, Twitter will begin to falter as it proves to be unable to identify a clearly attainable revenue stream. By year-end, it will either be acquired or will be seeking to merge or be acquired. The most likely buyer remains Facebook, but interest will come from others as well and Twitter will work hard to generate an auction that produces a high valuation for the company.

NO DEAL, so far. But RIGHT about Twitter beginning to falter and still having no “clearly attainable” revenue stream in sight. Twitter’s unique visitors and site visits, as measured by Compete.com, peaked last summer and have been declining, slowly, ever since. Quantcast agrees. [But note that neither of those traffic stats count people interacting with Twitter via the API, through Twitter apps, or by texting. —Ed.]

PREDICTION: Some innovative new approaches to journalism will emanate from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

YES, as described in this post and this post. See also the blogs of Steve Buttry and Chuck Peters. The Cedar Rapids Gazette and its affiliated TV station and web site are in the process of reinventing and reconstructing their entire workflow for news gathering and distribution.

PREDICTION: A major motion picture or HBO series featuring a journalism theme (perhaps a blogger involved in saving the world from nefarious schemes) will generate renewed interest in journalism as a career.

RIGHT. Well, I’m not sure if it has generated renewed interest in journalism as a career, but the movie State of Play featured both print reporters and bloggers. And Julie of Julie & Julia was a blogger, as well. [Bit of a reach there, Martin. —Ed.]

[ADDENDUM: I posted about Martin's predictions when he made them and wrote this:

I’d agree with most, although (a) I think there will be at least one other newspaper company bankruptcy, (b) I think Q3/Q4 revenue numbers will be down from 2008, not flat, (c) circ will be down, not stable, (d) newspaper stocks won’t beat the market, (e) the Kindle boom won’t be as big as he thinks for newspapers, and (f) Twitter won’t be in major trouble in [2009] — Facebook is more likely to feel the pinch with its high server-farm costs.

I was right on (a), (b), and (c) and wrong on (d). Gimme half credit for (f), since Twitter is now profitable and Facebook didn’t seem too affected by server expenses. Uncertain on (e), but I’ll eat my hat if “75 percent of [NYT Kindle] subscribers were not previously readers of the print edition, and half of them are under 40.” —Josh]

Photo of fortune-teller postcard by Cheryl Hicks used under a Creative Commons license.

December 04 2009

19:52

“Integrating” news and advertising

At first, I was horrified as many were at the news out of Dallas that A.H. Belo Corp. would “integrate” news and ad departments at its newspapers, including its flagship Dallas Morning News, by having some section editors at their newspapers reporting to sales managers. Would ad people control content? Yikes. I count myself among the many newsroom troops who fought wars to keep this kind of thing from happening.

But as I thought about it a little more, it occurred to me that this is really just another case of the dead-tree news business trying to catch up to what’s going on in the online world. Thanks to our new friend the algorithm, editorial and advertising content are inextricably linked in ways that were never possible with the printed page.

In this new world, online journalists might think they can publish any stories they want. But if the stories don’t have the right keywords — or, heaven forbid, if they contain words blacklisted by advertisers — they won’t sell. And if the stories don’t sell ads, the publication, however high-minded its editors, will cease to exist. There’s really not much room to escape from that reality — at least as long as the publication’s first duty is to turn a profit for its owners.

Nothing wrong with making a profit. But the close connection can preclude online publications from pursuing some topics with the same depth and vigor as did newspapers of yore — for example, homelessness, poverty, or other social ills that don’t have a natural appeal to advertisers. And if other publishers take their cue from the leadership at Belo, that might not be the case for newspapers going forward.

In my mind, this is exactly the space where the nonprofit model fills a need that grows with every cancelled newspaper subscription. In a world where algorithms supplant human judgment, it can provide a needed buffer that protects the public interest.

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