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Summary:

Shutting down the printing presses at the Washington Post would impose a financial cost on the newspaper, but the benefits of such a move — both psychological and financial — would more than make up for it.

Printing Press

Like many other observers and analysts, I responded to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of the Washington Post by jumping in with some free advice on a turnaround strategy — a list of five things I thought he should do to try and reimagine what a newspaper needs to be in a digital age. One of those suggestions in particular has triggered a barrage of criticism: namely, the idea that the Post should shut down its printing presses. But that is the step I think may actually be the most crucial — and at the same time, the hardest to take.

The reason why it would be hard is partly financial. As Ryan Chittum has pointed out at the Columbia Journalism Review — and as others have pointed out to me on Twitter — there is a very real cost to shutting down the print version of a newspaper like the Post. According to Chittum’s calculations, the New York Times generates close to 75 percent of its revenue from print, and print readers also make up about 75 percent of the overall time spent with the NYT — because they spend more time with the paper version than readers do with the website.

Yes, there would be a financial cost

newspaper boxes

Based on its latest financial results, the Post generates about half of its revenue from print advertising and circulation — which is still a substantial amount. Of course, this kind of argument for keeping print ignores two crucial points: the first is that print advertising has been declining dramatically for the past decade or so, a free fall that shows no sign of slowing down, let alone stopping. The second is that printing also makes up a large part of a newspaper’s cost structure — and shedding print would also shed those costs.

But let’s agree for now that if the Post were to stop printing, it would cost the company some revenue, and perhaps even a lot of revenue. In a way that’s irrelevant, because my argument for why Bezos should stop the presses isn’t primarily a financial one.

I will say that I think Chittum’s observation about how an average New York Times reader online is “worth virtually nothing” says as much about the failure of the NYT to take advantage of those readers as it does about the inherent value of an online audience (and even former NYT statistics columnist Nate Silver is with me here, saying the Times should be far more profitable than it is, based on its traffic). But let’s leave that aside.

For me at least, the benefit of stopping the presses would be primarily psychological. That’s why I referred to venture investor Marc Andreessen’s advice from 2010 about how newspapers should “burn the boats” — which in turn was a reference to the apocryphal tale of the explorer Cortes, and how set his boats on fire so his troops wouldn’t be able to flee.

newspapers

In some ways, the fact that a newspaper’s print operations still make money is as much a crutch or an addiction as it is a help. Not only does it siphon resources — both personal and financial — away from the digital side, but it diverts attention as well. That’s a big part of why Digital First Media CEO John Paton is such a proponent of putting digital natives in charge instead of “printies.” It’s difficult to focus on disrupting an existing business when you are also trying to manage that business — that’s a big part of the innovator’s dilemma.

Would shutting down the print version of the Post inconvenience a lot of readers? Sure it would, and probably advertisers too. But there are plenty of things Jeff Bezos and Amazon could do to ease that inevitable transition, like providing free (or heavily discounted) Kindles to any reader who wants them. Some critics argue that stopping print would affect lower-income readers most — but then aren’t newspapers already partway down that road anyway, by putting up print prices and implementing restrictive paywalls?

The thing that makes a print shutdown most appealing is that it would make it obvious to everyone where the future of the Post (and other papers) lies, and it would focus every ounce of attention inside the paper on digital only — not on some wishy-washy blend of print and digital. And while I don’t have any more insight into Jeff Bezos’ motivation than anyone else, I think he would be attracted by the purity of such a move: Amazon is not one for half measures, and I hope he brings some of that approach to his stewardship of the Post.

Images courtesy of Flickr users KJ and George Kelly

  1. What percentage of the Post’s costs can be attributed to print? Without a number to compare to 75% of revenue, how should we evaluate your advice here?

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  2. You seem to assume Bezos bought the WaPo to make money from it directly. But as Alex Pareene remarked, “The rich don’t buy newspapers to…make money. They buy them to get influence.” (http://bit.ly/13XYqgz) The WaPo considered in isolation could be a steady loser yet still be a winner in the larger context of the Bezos empire, provided it retains its cachet with The People Who Matter in DC and sways them toward tax, labor, and other policies that make money for Amazon. From this perspective, the question about the print edition is whether digital-only would be as effective at reaching those people. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I note that those people have a tendency to be old.

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  3. Killing print just for the sake of killing print isn’t a solution. And the online-only future is no heaven either. Good journalism isn’t cheap and thus far it can’t be sustained by an online operation alone. Without its print operations WP will ultimately fail into a mix of good stories and “popular” content that would destroy it. Just look at Newsweek.

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  4. They can offer free access to washtington post on kindle! So any one wants to read the paper on the move, have to bue kindle! The benifits are dual fold!

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  5. Laura Simmons Friday, August 9, 2013

    The newspaper industry still provides much needed jobs. Besides journalists, printed newspapers require production, sales and circulation. The last thing this country needs is more unemployed professionals.

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  6. OldSchoolPro Friday, August 9, 2013

    Really? You actually think that everyone has some sort of capability or desire to “read” a newspaper online? This is the most ridiculous suggestion I’ve ever heard, and I’ve been around for many decades and most of them in the IT world. Not everyone subscribes to the idea of being connected 24/7 and a lot of us don’t care to read the news on a screen not much bigger than the palm of our hand. I see this as an arrogant, short-sighted suggestion that might make sense to the internet addicts, but to people who know better, it’s pretty lame. What’s next – having television stations scrap their broadcasting equipment so everyone can watch TV on their idiotic iPhones?

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  7. “What’s next – having television stations scrap their broadcasting equipment so everyone can watch TV on their idiotic iPhones?”

    Uhm, while I agree with you, that’s not far off either. Cable TV companies are struggling and internet services like HULU are taking off. Soon, there won’t be any cable TV.

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  8. Frank Latini Friday, August 9, 2013

    Interesting article. Out of the box conceptual thinking. Possibly apply the same thinking to other industries? Attempting to protect jobs in dying industries instead of thinking on how to re-train/re-educate workers is why we are in the current jobs situation.

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  9. Why would anyone shut down the most important revenue source of the company even in a declining trend? That doesn’t make any sense. The real challenge is to preserve the print business as much as possible while making big and profitable the digital one.

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  10. Lee Stecklov Friday, August 9, 2013

    Agreed, this is the direction but there are a lot of people who still want print,, especially the older 35 + crowd. There has to be a model which includes those readers.

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