Too little…

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.

  • Jeff,

    I read something a little different and actually quite encouraging for the news business in the memo.

    If Hearst wants to hold back some of its precious newspaper content and “only” make breaking news, blogs, databases and photo galleries available online, “only” wants to create microsites and “only” plans to do a better job of linking and aggregating, well that sounds like a pretty good web experience to me.

    Of course, it’ll probably speed the death of the paper in the bargain. That’s probably not the plan, but this approach will further marginalize the printed product and demonstrate how digital is an exponentially better medium for reporting and story-telling.

    And that’s a good thing. The faster the paper disappears or becomes a mere niche product, the sooner a digital-dominant culture can emerge and rebuild the business plan.

    I like what Hearst is up to a lot more than the knee-jerk reaction of “put up the pay wall” that we’ve been hearing from a lot of quarters in the past month.

    • Tim, yes, I had similar fantasies a few years ago. But I don’t think there’s time for the companies and even if there is time, what’s left on the other end of this slow collapse will be worthless, won’t it?

  • It is so sad that these once great Titans are falling

    Some take so demented joy I do not!

    Democracy will suffer and corruption will have safe harbor.

    Most troubling for anyone old and wise enough to see!

    • Max Alvarez

      I agree.

    • I doubt it – this is a myopic perspective. With many mediums via which the public can obtain quality news I just don’t buy this argument that democracy will falter because a number of poorly run newspaper have failed to transform as their readers seek new ways to consume information. Digital delivery via online and mobile will reach larger and broader audiences than was every possible in print.

      • I disagree. It is not myopic to assert that when the watchdogs go away corruption will emerge. What, we must now count on whisleblower bloggers to sound the alarm? Digital delivery to a broad audience sounds great, but whose work are you disseminating? Do you see Websites paying “content providers” a living wage to dig deep into government documents for 8 hours a day for two weeks to expose government corruption or malfeasance?

        Here’s an example. The financial and insurance industries lobbied hard and long to get government out of the way, arguing that if you removed regulation, “the market will manage itself better than government can.” Well, it did…

        Cue Dr. Phil: “How’s that workin’ fer ya?”

    • Andy Freeman

      > Democracy will suffer and corruption will have safe harbor.

      That happened a long time ago. Democracy has suffered and corruption has had a safe harbor largely because media played along.

      Since that happened while we had large newspapers etc, it’s rather silly to assert that it wouldn’t happen if they survived.

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  • Hearst may be the first big newspaper company that “gets” what’s going on with their business, and is actually doing something about it. Kudos. I imagine this will lead to a wave of more pay walls. And why not? What is there to lose? The small and stagnant internet ad revenue? I agree that this may be too late… the dam may have already burst. But better late than never. And the implementation of ideas previously articultated on this blog and others (outsourcing printing, blog networks, sales/marketing revamp, etc.) is certainly a step in the right direction. Looking forward to seeing if it produces results…

  • There are plenty of smaller local papers on Long Island, and this is a great opportunity for those papers to push their online content as being the only place you can get that information online. It’s a real shame for all the Newsday writers.

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  • In re: the effects of newspapers’ failing on democracy.

    Um, these are the same papers that were around for the last 9 years or so, right? I can’t help but feel that they were serving up more cross-platform coverage of American Idol, athletes on steroids, and Octomom-style tabloid fever than they did real reporting. The blogs did a much, much better job on average of breaking some of the better stories.

  • sam

    Newsday’s website is dreadful…more like an afterthought than a real vehicle for getting the news out. There has been considerable discussion on this blog about emphasizing local news. Newsday’s website gives top billing to stories about Christie Brinkley, some celebrity named Brown who’s accused of beating up his significant other, and other assorted trivia. While it has local news on there, too, some stories linger there for more than a week, some developing stories are barely updated, and there’s no coverage at all of others. For example, a large jewelry shop in the Roosevelt Field mall closed abruptly the day after Christmas. Not a word in Newsday. The second wave of major rebrandings of gasoline stations to occur in two or three years happened recently…not a word of coverage. Nassau County is in dire economic straits even as it spends like crazy…silence. And these are just the stories I notice while casually being out and about.