It’s with profound amusement that I read Newsday will attempt to “end the distribution of free web content.” (Next, Cablevision will try to charge us for its deeply boring News12 that no one watches.)
But it’s with profound sadness, exhaustion, exasperation, and deja vu that I read Hearst’s memo about its attempts to update – a memo that could and should have been written and tried out 12 years ago (I’m sure people in this company and others did write versions of it; I know I did). If these actions had been taken back then, there still would have been time to make change and survive. But that time is over. Now the memo comes off only as desperation as the company threatens to close its papers in San Francisco – its onetime center of gravity – and Seattle. Now it is too little, too late.
The memo wishes to charge for online content. See above. It also fantasizes about charging more for the print product. “Our print subscribers don’t pay us enough today that we can say they are actually paying for content. Rather, we only ask readers to pay for a portion of the cost of printing the paper on newsprint and delivering it to the reader’s doorstep. We must gradually, but persistently, change this practice.” That’s put precisely 180 degrees from how it should be put: not what the public owes the paper for its expenses but what the journalism printed on that paper is worth. I was just in San Francisco and read the Chron there. I can’t imagine paying for the product I saw every day in any medium. As I travel across the country, I have to say that’s too tragically true of too many local newspapers, many far worse. They’ve cut themselves into irrelevance or just crappiness rather than concentrating their resources on what would make them truly valuable.
The memo speculates about creating an E-ink reader, seeking the mythical iPod moment for papers. I fear it’s a myth.
It says they need to find efficiencies and savings. That has been the case for years. It notes that “all newspapers look pretty much alike” and so they should be produced with shared services; I can’t believe that chains did not do that a decade ago. Why didn’t they share those expenses so they could concentrate resources on reporting – on value? Turf and ego, probably.
It says that papers must serve new populations of smaller advertisers with new sales methods: “…we cannot afford to do so by calling on every advertiser in person every other week and then having a team of artists build and rebuild their ads.” Let me dig my memos about that out of the file. Hearst’s memo says: “…we must fully make the leap from simply selling pages to selling audiences.” Yes, but that was the lesson and mantra about 10 years ago. Now, with a new population of marketers – smaller, more local – and with search and Google and maps and mobile changing the local economy utterly, the goal has shifted past “selling audiences” to helping local businesses enhance their services and relationships and using anything – even Google – to do that. Plain, old advertising won’t cut it, no matter how you sell it.
It says that “we have a revenue and business model problem as opposed to an audience problem.” Well, yes and no. The audience online has grown. But engagement with newspaper sites is short and sporadic versus true community services. The question is whether, when papers disappear, the community will care or shrug because newspapers were not enough part of their communities, serving them as platforms instead of products.
At long last, the memo sees the need to get rid of printing costs. It says Hearst will use outside printers to get more color (presumably because they think they can charge higher rates for that). I’d say the way to get rid of printing is to get rid of paper and move to the future. But that’s still too radical.
It finally recognizes the opportunities to collaborate with the community: “We must do a far better job of reaching out to prominent citizens in our communities, those who already have a blog and those who don’t, and providing them a prominent platform to state their views. We must develop a rich network of correspondents to help us grow the deepest hyper-local community microsites in our markets.” That is the key revelation that should have come long ago, but I won’t grouse: It has come at last. See my upcoming post about The New York Times and hyperlcoal.
At the end, the memo brags that they have a new marketing campaign on the way. That’s the last thing they need. A good platform serving the community will sell itself. A bad product can’t be sold no matter how much you advertise it.
Bottom line: Hearst says it will try to get 50 percent of revenue – to support a business 50 percent smaller, according to reports about San Francisco – from circulation and digital advertising. Good luck. I mean it: Good luck.
I’ve been saying recently that I realized I thought we’d have a peaceful passing on of power, like Jan. 20, from the print president to the digital president (and the metaphor ain’t far off). But more and more I see that there won’t be an orderly transition. There will be destruction. There will be voids. But out of that will grow new news
: LATER: John Thornton says:
On the verge of extinction, the SF Chronicle and Newsday decide, after “emergency” meetings, to put up paywalls. It’s not a risky move, any more than it would be risky for a hospice-bound cancer patient to start an aggressive course of Jack Daniel’s therapy. And, it’s about as likely to work. There might well be examples of businesses that bought their way back from the brink by raising prices. I’ve just never seen one.