Who'll sell more papers: Warren Buffett or the Internet?
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An interesting debate seems to be shaping up about the future of newspapers. On one side, recent newspaper chain purchaser Warren Buffett, who tells Howard Kurtz publishing newspapers three days a week, which Advance Newspapers' Times-Picayune will begin to do later this year, will drive readers away from print:
“This three-day-a-week stuff really kills you,” Buffett says. “You want people who look at you every day…Once people get used to online, I don’t think they come back.”
But isn't that exactly the sort of outcome that makes news executives' hearts -- you may insert your own joke here -- beat faster, as they imagine readers consuming their newsrooms' work on physical objects like smartphones and tablets that, unlike print, the newspaper company didn't have to pay for?
Media analyst Harold Vogel tells Christine Haughney he approves of lowering the costs associated with print by cutting print frequency:
“For the local papers, this is their best attempt at survival,” Mr. Vogel said. “The fixed costs are high and they cannot in my opinion make a real pay wall that a sufficient number of people will subscribe to cover the costs.”
Of course, newspaper companies often carry the burden of printing plants and delivery trucks whether or not they publish papers on a particular day. But the decision to reduce print papers is usually accompanied by cuts on the newsroom side, as well.
Staff reductions are indeed planned in New Orleans; they've hurt Advance's Ann Arbor News, Charles R. Eisendrath of the University of Michigan tells Haughney:
“Is AnnArbor.com discussed much in Ann Arbor? No. Is it an authority? No,” Mr. Eisendrath said. “I don’t trust anything that is done on the cheap.”
But cuts to staffing and print costs aren't silver bullets; Buffett tells Kurtz digital ad money "is peanuts compared to what you need to sustain a newspaper.” So the dilemma appears to be: Big expensive product without enough revenue to support it, or smaller, less expensive product without enough revenue to support decent newsgathering? Buffett doesn't say how he's going to square this particularly gnarly circle, other than that he wants his papers to try to hook readers with high school sports news and other labor-intensive community news. If I had to guess, I'd say the theory is this: Once the economy improves, advertising will pick up, and news organizations will shuffle into the next era bloodied but whole if they a) have owners with deep-enough pockets to wait that day out; and b) have figured out how to supplement crummy digital ad revenue with a paywall.
A debate between CJR's Ryan Chittum and Clay Shirky over the future of The Washington Post has plangency here: Chittum said the Washington Post Company was crazy to pay dividends instead of investing in its newsroom; Shirky replied that "in its current configuration, the Post is basically screwed." Chittum says there is a way forward:
Journalism will never again be (and should never have been in the first place) a 30 percent profit-margin business, and those Gannett papers didn’t produce much greatness anyhow. But can good newspaper organizations be at least slightly profitable in the medium to long term?
In a speech delivered in Paris, Digital First Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady, who I used to work for at TBD.com, talked about some of the ways his company's papers are reorganizing for the Web: starting earlier, breaking stories online, engaging the community (and, of course, cutting copy-editing). He also said the company is adding investigative units and its papers are planning for the day their digital revenues exceed their print ones, which he says is a couple years off still.
Writing in the Buffett-owned Buffalo News, Editor Margaret Sullivan says Shirky and Buffett's views offer "a case of dueling crystal balls."
I don't know whose point of view will prevail when the full story is told. But, in this case, I know who I'm rooting for.