The (not so) daily news

I have more conflicts than a Louisiana politician when it comes to the news of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reducing its frequency from seven to three days a week: I was in charge of digital content in the parent-company division that started its sister site, NOLA.com; I worked on Advance’s Ann Arbor project; I was involved in the early stage of its Michigan project; and I’m working with Advance on another effort — though I am privy to nothing about New Orleans today. So take anything I say with a grain of salt the size of the Gulf of Mexico…. Still, I can’t not comment on the news.

Mathew Ingram and Ken Doctor will take you through the economic reality at work in New Orleans and Advance’s Alabama and Michigan markets: The cost of printing seven days a week is becoming unsustainable. It’s still profitable to print two or three days a week, not because those are the only days when news happens but because newspapers are still in the distribution business and those are the most lucrative — still-lucrative — days to distribute inserted and printed ads.

That could change again when and if (a) newspaper circulation falls below the critical mass needed to distribute coupons and circulars and (b) local advertisers become more savvy and finally move online themselves. Then printing and distributing paper will become even less profitable, even less sustainable. That’s when print could — mind you, I didn’t say “will” as I’m not predicting the form’s demise; I repeat, “could” — disappear.

By then, newspapers had better be ready. That is, they had better have become digital companies. That is the essence of the digital first strategy: become sustainable, successful online companies that can survive without (or with) print. And grow again from there.

That’s the process we’re witnessing here — that and a continuing cutback brought on by falling circulation and advertising revenue; not a new story, of course. This is a most difficult transition.

Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger has been talking about this transition for years. Back in 2005, he talked about buying the last presses. Later, he talked about trying to move his newspaper over what he called the green blob — the great unknown that stands between declining print and ascending digital. That is the job of the editor and publisher today: to make that transition. Shifting content, staff, readers, and advertisers from print to digital is necessary. Improving digital is necessary. And rethinking print is necessary.

If profitable, I think there could continue to be a role for print. In the Guardian’s case, I’d propose that it follow the very successful model of Die Zeit in Germany and publish once a week as the Weekend Observer, turning the Guardian into an online-only, worldwide brand, which it pretty much already is. See, I’m not against print.

But we have to make print beside the point. Of course, it’s not the manufacturing and distribution we should care about preserving and advancing. It’s the journalism and service. It’s not the past we want to protect. It’s the future.

You can argue with the strategy undertaken by any newspaper company undergoing this difficult transition. But better a transition than the alternative.

LATER: Postmedia in Canada just announced that it, too, is cutting frequency, ending Sunday papers (which are thin like Saturday papers in the U.S.) in Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa. The National Post is suspending Mondays in the summer and looking at its schedule. The company is moving page production to a shared facility in Hamilton, Ont. Disclosure: I’m on the digital advisory board for Postmedia.

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  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    Not surprising that a company that owns one of the largest networks of vertical weekly newspapers (American Business Journals) would recognize the opportunity for blowing up the daily general interest newspaper — and find alternative ways to serve local markets with less-than-daily niche publications that support a digital first, low fixed cost business model. Oh, and did I mention the same company owns Sporting News, another niche that is ripe for a disruptive national network of local less-than-weekly print publications.

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  • http://twitter.com/jvreeland Jeff Vreeland

    What I am unable to undertand from the paper I read (Birmingham News, in the Alabama market) is how over the course of the next 3 months these print companies can shift to an increased digital presence that will be something I want to visit daily. Currently, the design for NOLA.com and AL.com require me to have laser focus to find the content.

    I am all for a digital medium that I can consume when and where I would like, but the focus has to be on the news, not paid advertisements for me to be a continued consumer.

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  • Joe

    If the future is the kind of awful websites that infect Ann Arbor, then god help us all.

  • http://twitter.com/ispencer Ian Spencer

    It must be embarrassing to have to publicly admit that you were even tangentially involved with Advance’s staggeringly incompetent family of newspaper websites. The horrifying new designs of NOLA.com, MLive.com, and AL.com serve as a stark reminder that Advance has absolutely no idea what it’s doing in the digital sphere.

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