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
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.
Print is a crutch and a distraction
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.
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.