As newspaper companies like Advance Publications attempt to wean themselves away from a reliance on print — a transition that almost every mainstream publisher will likely have to emulate at some point — the full implications of this disruption are starting to become obvious. One is that a digital newspaper becomes just another online information source among thousands of others, and that kind of competition isn’t something most publishers are used to dealing with. Many newspapers also seem to have forgotten what business they are actually in, and that misunderstanding goes a long way towards explaining the rush to implement monopoly-style features like paywalls. But as Justin Fox notes at the Harvard Business Review, this kind of rear-guard action will ultimately be futile for all but a select few.
Fox, who used to work at one of the Advance newspapers in Alabama that recently had its staff slashed and publishing frequency reduced, points out that the foundation of most newspaper business models — that is, the monopoly over information delivery — was doomed as soon as the internet came along, with its virtually frictionless distribution model and non-existent barriers to access. But Fox makes an important point: the real foundation of these monopolies from a business standpoint wasn’t so much the delivery of news (although that was important) but the delivery of advertising to a captive market:
The monopoly was on the delivery of printed advertising messages into homes in a given city or (better) metropolitan area: department store ads, supermarket ads, car dealer ads, and, most of all, classifieds. Notice that I didn’t mention news. That’s because, once a monopoly was established, the editorial content of a newspaper had no detectable impact on its financial success.
Advertisers are a newspaper’s main customers, not readers
Although most newspaper publishers probably don’t want to admit it, the thing that allowed them to build sustainable media businesses — particularly in smaller markets — wasn’t so much their access to news or the production of great journalism as it was control over a dominant advertising platform. All the jokes from newspaper production departments or ad sales reps about how news articles are “to keep the ads from bumping into each other” have more than just a grain of truth to them. And the attempt to maintain that revenue source is what has driven so many papers to install paywalls, as a way of keeping readers from fleeing to the digital version.
Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review makes a similar point in a piece he wrote about paywalls, and how they are fundamentally backward-looking — a point that blogging pioneer Dave Winer has also made, and one I have argued in a number of posts about the downsides of a blanket paywall strategy. As Niles notes, newspaper publishers often behave as though they think their readers are their customers, and therefore they should be the ones footing the bill by paying for the news. But that’s a crucial misunderstanding of the facts, since advertisers are the ones who have always paid the bills:
Many beginning news publishers cripple their business by failing to recognize who their customers are. A customer is whoever writes you a check (or gives you a credit card number). Too many publishers naively believe that their customers are their readers, when the customers actually are the advertisers or foundations that are paying the bills to keep the publication running.
The problem is that those advertisers now have an almost unlimited field in which to play, and they are finding what they need elsewhere, whether it’s in the kind of socially-driven advertising they can get on Facebook or Twitter, or through targeted web advertising aimed at specific groups or niche markets. None of these things are features that most newspapers are equipped to provide, for both technological and cultural reasons. Their specialty has always been the broad, mass market consumer — but if advertisers want that, they have billions of webpages on which they can drop a cheap display banner.
Publishers need to focus on unique information, not commodity news
As advertising revenue continues its inexorable decline, newspapers are being forced to confront the fact that the financial model that supported their news and journalism is crumbling. And simply cutting costs to try and bring them in line with revenues — as Advance is being accused of doing in New Orleans and Alabama — without investing anything on the digital side is a recipe for disaster. As Niles argues, the only thing that publishers can do in the face of digital disruption is to focus on the things that make them unique and rid themselves of everything related to the old commodity-style news business.
What unique information can a news publication provide? Investigations. Perspective. Analysis. And don’t overlook the uniqueness of a specific community of engaged readers, contributing to the publication’s information with their own unique perspectives, reports, and analysis. When well-cultivated by engaged leadership, that community itself can become a publication’s greatest unique asset.
Could a paywall of some kind — or what digital-media veteran Steve Outing prefers to call a “freemium” model for news — be part of the solution? It could be for some, says Fox, but not for the vast majority of small or medium-sized metro papers. One of the newspapers (other than the New York Times) that has had the most success with a paywall, he notes, is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and most of that success has come from getting readers to maintain a print subscription rather than actually generating large amounts of new revenue. “That feels more like a rearguard action than a plan for the future,” he says.
If former monopoly owners are going to remain part of these small to medium-sized markets, according to Fox, “they’ll probably need owners who don’t really care about making money.” That may not describe billionaire Warren Buffett, who has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars acquiring newspapers of late — it seems obvious from his comments that he believes smaller newspapers still have a monopoly of sorts on the information their communities want or need.
But if Niles and Fox and media theorist Clay Shirky are right, Buffett may find himself confronting the exact same challenges that Advance and Postmedia are: namely, how does a former monopoly survive in a market — for both news and advertising — that has become almost hyper-competitive?