October 19, 2016

“What if almost the entire newspaper industry got it wrong?”

Thus begins a contrarian argument from Politico’s Jack Shafer, who goes on to suggest in his Oct. 17 column that newspapers wasted billions of dollars by establishing beachheads on digital media.

He cites as evidence a new paper by H. Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim of the University of Texas, which notes that local online readership for most newspapers is stagnant or decreasing, with financial performance of online editions “underwhelming.”

The research dashes some of the conventional wisdom surrounding ink-and-tree editions: They’re artifacts of a bygone era, supplanted by a healthy and growing digital audience. Shafer writes:

As [Chyi] explains, the circulation of the supposedly dying print product may be in decline, but it still reaches many more readers than the supposedly promising digital product in home markets, and this trend holds across all age groups. For all the expense of building, programming and hosting them, online editions haven’t added much in the way of revenue, either.

Shafer’s take touched off a massive debate on social media, with future-of-news types, editors and journalists alternatively deriding Shafer or adding amens. Among the most-cited of Shafer’s detractors was former editor and LSU Director of Student Media Steve Buttry, who called the column “B.S.”

He argued, instead, that newspapers weren’t audacious enough in their digital media experimentation and failed to spot big opportunities early. From his blog, The Buttry Diary:

Huge startups such as Google and Facebook, large-but-smaller startups such as BuzzFeed and Shafer’s Politico and tiny startups such as the members of the Local Independent Online News Publishers all did a better job of pursuing digital opportunities than newspapers did. The newspapers’ colossal mistake wasn’t that they pursued digital opportunities too boldly but that they pursued them too timidly.

His post and Shafer’s column both figured into lengthy back-in-forths about the editorial and financial value of online publishing in 2016. Here’s a particularly piquant exchange between Shafer and Peter S. Goodman, a Europe economic correspondent for The New York Times based in London.

At least one other media thinker offered a different take than both Buttry and Shafer and proposed an alternative theory — that newspapers are on their way back to being “marginal businesses.”

And some concurred with Shafer’s premise:

So, who’s right? Did newspapers make a big mistake by jumping aboard the digital train? Or is it Chyi and Shafer who’ve reached the wrong conclusions about the future (and past) of newspapers? For answers, I talked to Rick Edmonds, Poynter’s media business analyst, about the research.

What do you make of the notion that newspapers should have forsaken online distribution and stuck to comparatively lucrative print editions?

I think that publishers really need to be as strong as they can on both. There are markets that overlap, but there’s really a distinction. There are some people, still, who prefer the print version, a lot of people who prefer online. So I don’t think you can sit out the digital revolution.

I think there are good examples of doing both. The Dallas Morning News is a good example. The Boston Globe is a good example. It can be done. And I think there are smaller papers — The Charleston Post and Courier is a good example, they’ve had a really strong several years, won a Pulitzer, covered breaking news with distinction.

It can be done. We’re talking about business success, and given how difficult the advertising climate is, flat is the new up — at least for right now. But that doesn’t mean you can quit the game.

Though the business merits of staying with print can be debated, it’s hard to argue that readers are better-served with a print-only edition. Putting dollars and cents aside, aren’t digital-friendly newspapers just better for their communities?

I’ve corresponded some with H. Iris Chyi and asked her, and she conceded, there are some things that are clearly better with online. It’s a lot quicker. In a big breaking local news story, you want to do a good, comprehensive story for the next day’s paper, but you also want to start posting right away. And many of the opportunities for multimedia presentation just aren’t present in print.

So it goes back to doing some of both.

What do you think of the contention that newspapers’ online offerings are somehow inferior to print editions?

I think that’s debatable. But I do think it gets to a point that should be considered, which is that early efforts were not that great in quality. We used to have shovelware, which was to take stories from the morning paper and put them online — a decade ago, that’s all people were doing. Advertising has been a tough slog. But more than $3 billion (in online ad revenue) and modestly growing is not something you want to be throwing away.

Print ad revenue is taking a hit, and digital advertising is still a big business — even if it’s mostly going to Google and Facebook. What do you think about the future of print revenue?

Everybody’s favorite chart…is (the one that shows) only ad revenue. A lot of people seem to forget, when they talk about the woes of the newspaper industry, that there’s $10 billion in circulation revenue that’s held pretty steady. In one of his tweets, Jack Shafer cited a story of mine that noted circulation and circulation revenue is kind of a success story lately. Papers have been able to trim costs, raise prices. They have lost print circulation, but overall, they’re doing pretty well with that.

But with revenue trending down and audiences graying, it seems as if newspapers are setting themselves up for inevitable death if they ignore the web. Can they stay afloat with just print editions?

Laughing* Only as long as guys like me keep reading.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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