«

»

Jun
21
2013

What Newspapers Will Look Like When They are Profitable

Tom Schreier is a fan of newspapers, but not in their current state.

I think about the future of journalism a lot. It’s only natural: I want to make a living by writing about sports, and the best way to do that is probably to join a newspaper. While things look bleak right now—circulation is down and writers and editors are being laid off—it will turn around once the old timers learn to adapt to the Internet age.

The greatest barrier to profitability is, of course, the cost it is going to take to make a newspaper profitable. In order to generate revenue, papers must charge for content and use newsletters and to distribute their content.

The greatest risk they will have to take is buying out smaller newspapers in their state in order to bring as many readers to their website and create as much circulation as possible.

Finally, they must go beyond just writing and have access to television and radio throughout the state they cover.

 

Charging people for content

Ad revenue alone will not cover the cost of operating a newspaper. Even a bare bones newsroom has to pay their editors and writers a living wage, have a technical team to operate the website and pay a distributor to get the newsprint to subscribers.

Obviously if newspapers could operate on ad revenue alone, they would be doing just fine. There are plenty of papers that offer their content at no charge and are still struggling to get by. On the other hand, a newspaper cannot make people pay for everything they read. Papers that are not online lose, among others, people of my generation that carry laptops and smartphones and like to use them for everything, environmentalists that do not want to see reams of paper go to waste and the average citizen that does not want unread newspapers piling up in their mailbox or at their door.

Papers that are online, but are “exclusive” or “insider only,” run the risk of falling victim to the Bill Simmons Effect. Before Simmons was on ESPN and the world’s most read sportswriter, he was writing for a subscription-based section of AOL that had content people had to pay a monthly fee for. In order to promote his content he simply copied and pasted it into an email and sent it to anyone that wanted it. Even if the writer is unwilling to distribute their content free of charge, it only takes one person with a subscription to copy and paste the information and distribute it for free.

The key to getting people to pay for content is twofold: provide a certain amount of content for free and encourage people to subscribe to the newsletter.

One school of thought is to have some articles available for view online and others only in print or an “insider” section. The problem with that is a) if it’s only in print, online readers are not exposed to your best content and b) the “insider” section is always subject to copy and paste.

Instead, make all content free, but limit non-subscribers to 10 articles per month and place more advertisements on their copy. If a person is reading only 10 articles per month to avoid the subscriber fee—so be it! They are still generating ad revenue for the site!

In fact, many papers would probably be lucky to get a majority of the population in their metro area to read 10 articles per month. It’s not that they have bad content, although some of them do, it’s that people are turning to other places as a source of information: national news outlets, blogs or social media.

People are cheap and willing to go to great lengths to get what they want for free. Most people want to be informed or at least entertained and if they are really that cheap, they will be willing to wade through advertisements in order to do so. Hell, people will wait through a 30-second YouTube commercial just to see a 10-second clip. Trust me, they’ll be willing to scroll over a few advertisements to get to the end of a good article.

Also, by tossing a pop-up encouraging people to subscribe to a newsletter is never a bad idea. Bleacher Report has been doing this since I joined in 2010 and they have the strongest newsletter program on the Internet—many of which are localized based on a single team in a specific area.

Make the newsletter free, encourage people to subscribe, and see if they really can stick to 10 articles per month if it is in their inbox every day. Sure, everyone is overwhelmed by email, but they also prioritize what they want in there and as long as your content is informative and entertaining, people will find a place for it.

By having a newsletter to open every morning, news companies are inviting their customer to create a routine of reading their content when they open their email in the morning. They are also encouraging people to use their content as their source of information instead of a competitor’s because it’s a lot easier to access.

The Gmail inbox is now people’s mailbox and that is where they have gotten their news since before the Internet existed and that is where they will get it now.

 

Buy out the competition

It is important to keep news local. There are many national newspapers (USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, etc.) as well as magazines (The Atlantic, Time) and multi-platform sources (ESPN, FOX News) so it makes no sense to transform a local paper into a national paper—the market is already saturated.

Localizing news not only creates brand loyalty, it also specializes in events that are important to a specific group of people, but are unimportant on a national scale.

For example, back in December, I wrote about seeing a person die when a taxi driver in St. Cloud, a small city west of Minneapolis, hit a 33-year-old man when he crossed the street in the middle of the night.

On a national scale, this is of little importance. While most people would agree that it is tragic to see a person lose their life at such a young age, somebody in St. Louis, Mo. or Austin, Texas is unlikely to have heard of St. Cloud, Minn. and understand the context of the story.

On the other hand, many people in Minnesota have connections to the city of St. Cloud: There is a large state university located there, politically, many Twin Cities suburbs are located in St. Cloud’s congressional district and people are often emotionally invested in what happens in their home state.

From a purely business/pragmatic point-of-view, it’s unfortunate the even took place in St. Cloud. In order to get a reporter on the scene, the Minneapolis Star Tribune would have had to send a staff member an hour west at 2:00 am, when the event occurred, by which time the police had probably arrived, a mob had formed and the body likely would have been transported away in an ambulance. The reporter would have to gather second-hand information from observers of the scene, many of whom were probably in shock or intoxicated (it happened early Sunday evening near the bars in a college town), and create a story from there.

In short, there is no reason for the Star Tribune to send someone down there to cover the story.

On the other hand, the St. Cloud Times likely has an office downtown near the area where the man was hit. A reporter could probably be on the scene in a matter of minutes, at around the time the police arrived, right when the crowd is formed, and get information from people that arrived on the scene immediately.

While the Star Tribune may run an AP story or quote from the St. Cloud Times on their website or in in their newsletter, from a purely business standpoint, missed out on a lot of readership.

Most of the people that are interested in that event are in St. Cloud. Whether they are concerned about the cause of death in their city, are an eyewitness or frequent the area, it is likely that they either subscribe to the St. Cloud Times or went to a local radio’s website to find information about it. I mean, unless you were a Star Tribune subscriber, why would you go there first?

And that’s just it.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune should buy the St. Cloud Times. This is business, folks!

Monopolize content. The St. Cloud State Huskies advance to the Frozen Four in college hockey? You got a reporter there. Michele Bachmann announces she’s leaving her post in St. Cloud’s congressional district? You got it. St. John’s University raises tuition? You’re on it.

In fact, the Star Tribune should buy the Duluth News Tribune, the Bemidji Pioneer and the Faribault Daily News. No, these aren’t big cities: 86,000 live in Duluth, 66,000 in St. Cloud and 23,000 in Faribault. Bemidji? Try 13,000.

But here’s the thing, you hit all the hot spots and then all of a sudden, everyone is reading your paper. In fact, you can go after the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The Star Tribune can become Minnesota’s paper. Not only do you have all the best writers in the Twin Cities writing for one publication, therefore lessening the workload on people that have families and other obligations, but also it is simply adapting to the 21st century.

We are a globalized people. I open my browser to RealClearWorld.com and not only do I have the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post at my fingertips, but I can also read the Jerusalem Post, the Daily Telegraph and the Toronto Star.

With all due respect to my people here in Minnesota, we’re pretty much Bemidji to the rest of the world. People will read our columnists if they are skilled at their craft and have a national appeal and they will read our reporters if they cover people of national interest (Bachmann), but they have to know where to look for it.

This is not just a “Minnesota thing,” I’m just using an example I’m familiar with. The Atlanta Journal-Sentinel should be buying up papers in Georgia, as should the Indianapolis Star in Indiana and the Detroit Free Press in Michigan.

Some states are more complicated: does the St. Louis Post-Dispatch get Missouri or does the Kansas City Star want some of that action (there isn’t much going on west of Lawrence)? How do the Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News divide up Texas? Or the Memphis Daily News and the Nashville Tennessean in the Volunteer State.

Other places are more straightforward: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia will probably divvy up Pennsylvania east and west. Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati will probably split Ohio into thirds.

States with smaller populations might run into some difficulties: Is the Des Moines Register powerful enough to buy out Iowa? Do Omaha and Lincoln combine forces or do they compete for the rest of Nebraska? Who the hell takes the Dakotas? (Related: Does anybody want them?)

There are predicaments in bigger cities: The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times will probably continue to target a national audience. Maybe the Post buys out the rest of New York, or maybe the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle takes over. Maybe there is no alternative paper in D.C. And California is a mess. It is logically split between the Bay Area and L.A., the San Francisco Chronicle will probably buy out the San Jose Mercury News, but where do the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register fit in? And what about the San Diego Union-Tribune?

There are other problems too.

Some people in small towns will accuse the big-town papers of essentially being a Wal-Mart type business. My response to that is a) that’s business my friends, b) to be fair, it is probably going to create jobs (or at least retain jobs) for people in your community and c) it’s not a national chain, but simply a company that connects all the cities in one state (or at least one part of the state).

Some “journalism purists” will say that it will allow corruption to go unchecked. Because there are not two papers competing for information in one city, there is less incentive to break news on something that could backfire on the media company.

My response is that there will always be people that don’t want to work for a corporate news source (or are not accepted for employment by one) that will create blogs and will see the financial gain to be had in breaking a large investigative story. People are already creating blogs or alternative websites to create with the newspapers (or mainstream news sources) and have had great success doing so (Bleacher Report and the Huffington Post are two examples).

Piggybacking off of that last argument, there is great financial incentive for papers to break a big story. People read it, re-tweet it, quote it or otherwise distribute your content. While your sports and political columnists and beat writers keep the paper going while other writers do enterprise and investigative stories, it is ultimately the big story that is going to bring a windfall.

Finally, this is a benefit to all involved.

The reader knows exactly where to go for content and it creates jobs for writers. Say the Star Tribune had a satellite office in St. Cloud and they told me, “Hey, you can’t cover the Minnesota Twins or Wild just yet, but we’ve got a job out west where you can cover St. Cloud State hockey, Northwoods baseball and all sorts of high school sports. Do you want it?”

I’d take it in a heartbeat. Writing for a respectable publication while be edited by a professional staff with guaranteed access to a multitude of events? Sign me up!

Sure, it may just be a stop on my path to being a columnist for the Star Tribune, but it keeps places like Yahoo! and Turner from monopolizing the up-and-coming talent in the industry and ultimately puts young people in the smaller cities where they can gain an appreciation for what goes on in a place that they normally wouldn’t visit.

This is the way things are going. It’s just a matter of time before the powers that be realize it.

 

The multimedia star

Fine, people will say, it’s all good and well that you’ve got print and digital writing all over town, but what people can get their information first on the radio or television.

I bring you back to the scene in St. Cloud. The fastest way a writer can information about the death is to live blog it.

There are many faults to this method. For one, the writer should be reporting, not writing, upon arriving to the scene. Every moment spent writing is a moment when he or she can be making observations, interviewing eyewitnesses and contacting friends or family members of the victim. Also, that information would come out unverified and false information will harm the reputation of a newspaper—especially because it sits online, in writing, for everyone to see.

A writer can put together a story, post it, and send out a “breaking news” newsletter, but that rushes the writer, not allowing them to get the complete story together, and may force them to leave the scene early instead of sticking around to make sure he or she to the complete story.

And, by the way, the cameras and radio people that arrive on the scene have already gotten the news out long before anyone opens that newsletter. Plus, who’s online checking their email at 3:00 or 4:00 am anyways?

The writer’s job is not the get the story out the fastest, but to get the story correct. This particular incident was pretty clear-cut: A taxi driver hit a pedestrian and the pedestrian died. It can probably be released in the morning. There is more to it than a fatality, though, which cannot be explained as well over the radio or on television. Was the driver distracted? Was the pedestrian intoxicated (it happened near all the bars)? Should there be a slower speed limit? Does this person have a family? Is it a bad intersection? How often has this happened in the past?

That’s what the people who click on this story’s link in the morning want to know.

But in order to get the audience that just wants the news of what happened and perhaps a description of the scene, you need to have access to the radio and television.

Law comes into play here, and that’s a discussion for another time, but the newspaper also needs to either hire people that have radio or television experience. Or they have to train their reporters to be multi-media stars.

In all likelihood, they have to do both. They need somebody on the radio breaking down information as the reporter feeds the details about the scene. They also need television anchors to relay information from the reporter to the television audience at home.

Finally, it wouldn’t hurt if the person writing the story could go on the radio and television to give a final wrap-up of the story.

More to the point, though, for both ethical and practical reason, you don’t want to have to wait until somebody dies to generate an audience. Your opinion columnists should keep everything afloat until a big news story arrives. While their strength might be in writing, it’s easier for your personality to come across on television and over the radio. Plus, not everybody that wants to hear your opinion and agree/argue with you has time to read your stuff.

Your beat writers probably don’t need to be multi-media stars, they need to spend time focusing on one subject rather than preparing for a show, the investigative guys can’t be giving away information on the radio or television for obvious reasons and some people, like Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith or ESPN’s Wright Thompson are better served spending their time on enterprise stories.

A great paper is one with plenty of columnists that can cover a multitude of topics and, while the television may take away from their writing, should be able to light up the radio and get on the tube every once and a while.

 

Conclusion

Before you say it, this is self-centered. Being a Minnesota columnist for my version of the Star Tribune would be a pipe dream.

Having said that, I feel this condensing of the papers will ultimately serve everyone well. Readers would know where to go for news and it would create jobs for writers in small towns and big cities alike.

My guess is that this will eventually happen. People will resist change, as they are now, but everyone knows that you adapt or die. The newspapers must adapt.

The problem is that I’m not the only person sitting here waiting for change to happen and until it does more people will be laid off, more readers will turn to other sources (even if they are less credible) and more young talent will be forced, economically, to leave the industry.

The time to change is now.

Tom Schreier writes for TheFanManifesto. He can followed on Twitter at @tschreier3. Email him at tschreier3@gmail.com.

The entire FanMan team can be followed on Twitter at @TheFanManifesto, or liked on Facebook by clicking here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>