Many of us bemoan the quality of our local newspapers. The Gloucester Daily Times is much maligned (and justifiably so) for a number of reasons: the lack of in-depth news, the failure to cover basic city information (come on, really? Running Rockport’s honor roll but not Gloucester’s?), the horrible restrictive paywall-based website (which, by the way, is the same across all the local Eagle-Tribune papers – it’s not just you guys suffering). Reporters tend to come and go, never really learning the community or making local connections. The old breed of newsmen (at least, most of them were men) who used to sit at the local breakfast place where people would tell him all the dirt and who had all the connections? They’re gone, retired to warmer climates where they’re finally learning to use Facebook.
The problem is basically this. The Internet has taught us that the world is available to us for free. News, weather, sports, TV, literature, porn, everything – all for free. Paid for by advertisers, and since electrons have no marginal cost (compared to giant rolls of dead trees with ink stamped on it at high speeds), it should all be free, right?
Wrong. We’ve become spoiled by The Incredible Google Machine. Sure, it costs a lot of money to print newspapers. That cost, though, was amortized over the 30,000 or so copies of your local GDT used to print every day when everybody read the paper. There was ample room for differentiated advertising in the large format. Between the cost of the newspaper and the advertising revenue, there was enough to print and distribute the news, pay all the people who gather it, and have a healthy profit left over.
The web eviscerated that. First of all, web advertising doesn’t sell. It really doesn’t. As many people may view this story as used to read a daily GDT. If the Clam ruling junta is lucky, this post will generate about $10 or so [ed: more like $1!] worth of revenue from the ads that rotate in. Maybe. Even though the cost per impression of a web ad is far lower, the personnel costs for a news company are roughly the same. Reporters, editorial staff, people to sell the advertising (as cheap as it is), all are still needed to run a news publication. Plus the geeks who run the website – and good geeks cost more than the average pressman even though there are fewer of them in an online model.
In a larger operation, most web ads will be simply aggregated through an advertising network. Those ads will have a lower price still (since you can’t target them nearly as precisely as you should be able to do selling local ads, and there’s less relevancy) than what your ad sales team would be able to sell – but the advantage is you’ll have the ad inventory taken care of and fully sold.
So if those economics are so bad, how can you make it work? Well, there are online-only properties that make money. My hometown in CT once had two newspapers, a twice-weekly and a weekly, both of which were pretty much eviscerated by the Westport Now news site. Westport Now sells advertising to local businesses directly, manages ad inventory on their own ad server, and is profitable.
Back in the days when Patch was the “future of hyper-local journalism”, many of their sites were profitable as well. The downfall of Patch was the enormous number of unprofitable sites they ran on top of it in their bid to expand.
Meanwhile, the conventional media like the Eagle-Tribune group have it bad both ways. They really have no choice but to go into the web, and in this case using their corporate standard system – Blox CMS – which produces profoundly ugly content and still needs care and feeding. They have to do it, without really getting significant extra revenue out of it. It doesn’t cost them more for content. It does cost them money to host, manage, and maintain.
So of course, the only solution for a news operation at this scale is a paywall. How tight or leaky should the paywall be? I think most people have concluded that the paywall is way too tight (and it’s easily bypassed as well, thanks to Private Mode in all modern browsers). The other trick in a paywall is pricing digital access. The most successful model gives full digital away with a subscription to the dead tree edition. That works reasonably well for the New York Times and Boston Globe, among others. The Times has added an extra access tier for “enhanced” services on digital, with mixed results thus far.
The key, I think, is for newspapers to maintain digital as a reasonably priced adjunct to their paper edition. Keeping advertising sales merged into overall operations is cost-effective and makes it possible to sell advertising in combination. That helps. But ultimately, the burden is on us, the consumers of news. If the news we want to read is being provided by our local paper, we should be buying it and reading it. We should get the dead trees delivered to our home daily. Recycle them when you’re done. The strength of the web in local news is breaking news, archival searching, and, when you don’t have only whackjobs commenting, a robust comment section that allows educated discussion of the issues and stories.
(yeah, I know, all the commenters on almost every news site are nuts)
But read your local journalism. It’s not always up to the quality of a national publication, but most of the reporters try hard, and they make so little money that burger-flipping could be a upgrade. They show up at obscure local meetings, and they try to stay in touch. Buy the paper, or better still – subscribe. It’s short money, you get reliable fishwrap daily, and it’ll get you access to the paywall without having to go to Weird Technical Things in your browser. The more people subscribe, the better the journalism will be.
And most importantly, if any of you figure out a way for the Clam to make a fortune, please let us know. Because we’re all trying to figure out the best way to pay for the hookers & blow at KT’s new place in West Gloucester.
This is a great piece and not just because KT and I didn’t have to write anything today. Here are my two cents (which is coincidentally our ad revenue for today): The model may be closer to the NPR model- which is used when things are too cheap to charge for. With options like the currently overused but soon to be standard crowdfunding models, it may make more sense to provide great content and then crowfund the operation like PBS does, take in grants and that sort of thing. Running like a non profit is a good way for many necessary but not profitable services to survive.
Problem is that all these newspapers are owned by for-profit companies, and many of them have consolidated into large ownership groups. I think that may be the biggest thing that’s gone wrong with the regional group model. The Salem, Lawrence, Gloucester, and Newburyport papers might do well as a common group with economies of scale and selective re-use of stories, but as long as they’re owned by an Alabama pension fund how invested can they be?
And, as we have been discussing on the Facebook page there’s also a chicken and egg situation (by the way, the egg came first. Period.) with attracting subscribers versus investing in quality.
Josh, aside from overestimating how many copies the GDT once printed, your analysis is right on the money. Back, back back whenever–around 1970–the GDT sold 12,000 copies in the winter and 14,000 in the summer. A lot has changed since then, yes, including the demise of numerous narrowly-focused local retailers whose ads sustained the operation. But that circulation number and the lack of the anything-goes internet model meant enough income to pay an editorial (news) staff of 10 plus the printers, ad salespeople, and everyone else–and still turn an extremely healthy profit. Now circulation s ~8,000 at best, ad revenue is down both because of that and for other reasons, and what you see is what you get — a handful of committed people who see news-gathering and reporting as a calling, not a job, and are willing to do it for minimal pay. There’s a handful of papers that don’t do Web — just print — and seem to stay alive. The Boston Courant (and its related other weeklies in Boston) is one example. The Key West Citizen (a daily) is another. The no-Web model seems to work in tight niche markets or those that are geographically isolated. Cape Ann comes close to fitting that definition both by geography and culture. For all that we might complain, we’re lucky to have a paper that at least aspires, if only it could, to “comfort the afflicated and afflict the comfortable.”
Not to dig it in too much, but nearly every major Boston area news outlet has contacted Marty Delvecchio to air his GLOUCESTER-based BASS ROCKS basking shark footage…. except the GDT….