This week feels very much like 2009. That year I published a post titled ‘How the web changed the economics of news‘, a brief overview of some of the economic factors impacting on publishing which has recently experienced a resurgence of interest thanks to a Kingston University tutor whose students have been asked to review it. Their posts have been illuminating: not much, it seems, has changed since 2009. Many still think journalism is a high priesthood which will continue to thrive.
Meanwhile, Editor and Publisher’s Kristina Ackermann argues in an editorial that “digital first wasn’t enough to keep [Journal Register Co] from sinking back into bankruptcy” because digital didn’t make as much profit as print and, therefore, it should be abandoned. The NUJ New Media blog piles in with “This has never been a strategy for increasing profitability, but rather a strategy for slashing costs.”
I am tired of comparisons between print revenue and web revenue.
I am tired of people who think content is the main business model of most publishing, rather than advertising.
I am tired of people who think web-first was just about making money.
I am tired of people who think journalism is about stories, rather than people.
No one has the answer to the question of paying for journalism, but we should at least acknowledge that the old system is broken. We cannot go back to print profit margins: readers have left, and advertisers are following.
And when they arrive at the web, the offer to advertisers by news organisations has generally been far inferior to that being made by search engines and social networks.
Meanwhile, search engines are not busy stealing content or even selling advertising against it (try conducting a series of news-related searches if you don’t believe me: see any advertising?). Search engines and social networks are too busy selling advertising against searches and interests.
Dominic Ponsford’s recent suggestion that newspapers pull out of Google, for example, is just the latest example of a tendency among journalists to over-value content at the expense of advertisers. Instead, try following the money:
As for web first, that was always at least in part about protecting market share and extending brand reach (how many newspaper proprietors are in it for the influence, rather than on-paper profits?) as much as it was about making money.
Because what was the alternative? To leave a new and growing market wide open for competitors to launch their own web-only properties? And stay in the shrinking print market?
(It’s notable on that front that the Huffington Post avoided launching in Germany, reportedly because traditional brands have left no gaps in the online market.)
It was always going to be a tricky balance to maintain: protect shrinking print margins while developing growing digital revenues. Focus too much on one and you risk messing up the other. But we could not – and still cannot now – stop the clocks as Ackerman suggests, “until we figure out a way to make some money doing [web first].”
It may well be that there is a viable future for print-only newspapers. It may also be that dropping print costs entirely and going online-only is an option for others.
It may be that publishers are unlikely to maintain their previous advertising-based business models online, given how large a chunk of that market has been captured by search and social (and the indications suggest that share is growing).
More and more publishers are now supplementing those insufficient advertising streams with e-commerce, commercial partnerships, data services and apps. More are moving from general news to niche coverage. More are switching their focus to audiences who are engaged with their content, and willing to give more information about themselves.
They might all be wrong. Whatever the basis of publishing is to become, let’s at least have that discussion on the basis of evidence, rather than prejudice about ‘giving our content away’ or previous ways of doing things, or some chip on our shoulders about print revenues paying for digital experiments. Print revenues are shrinking, and every news organisation will need to find its own answer to that – they cannot wait for someone else to do it for them.