Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Misc. conversations

Since these posts probably won't make there way into my News Feed (at right) I thought I'd link to them ala Romenesko.

Alan Mutter has posted the second of three columns concerning the question "How long can print newspapers last?" -- Hint, he's not optimistic, and neither are his readers.

Robert Niles has a post on The Online Journalism Review arguing that there are only three ways publishers can make money from their content: Direct Sales, Advertising and Donations*. Many commenters disagree, though it may be more about semantics than an actual disagreement.

As I've mentioned before, I have a lot of problems with the whole discussion of monetizing content. From my perspective, as someone on the business side of this for 30 years, I never sold newspaper content. That is, I never went into an advertiser and said "run an ad with me because our writers are so good" -- or if I did, it was a minor part of the sell.

Print newspapers and magazines (especially B2B) are audience delivery machines the same way cigarettes are nicotine delivery machines. The purpose of the product is reach. Content makes reach possible, and advertising, attracted by that reach, makes the product profitable. Money brought in by circulation might offset circulation costs (barely), but if your product is making lots of money on paid subscriptions, then I would argue you are selling an information product. (When I was a publisher with McGraw-Hill my newspaper made millions in subscriptions, but that was because people were buying the business information in it -- construction bid notices -- the newspaper form was disguising the true nature of the product.)

Take this blog, you may like it or hate it, but its value is determined by the number of page views and unique users it can attract, not my insights. Right now, if I offered a paid medium rectangle to an advertiser the price would be low. But if this site's audience explodes, and a million uniques were achieved (won't happen) I'd be raking it in.

Many newspapers have seen their circulation numbers decline. But the declines in revenue (we'll forget about the expense side for now) have fallen more -- why? Part of the reason is media fragmentation (links here and here). All media has been hit by the recession, but newspapers and B2B media have been hit the worst because they were in decline long before the economic crisis hit.

Journalists should spend less time talking about monetizing content and more time talking about improving their content. Fix the quality issue first. But if you want to talk about how to make money in the newspaper content business you better start talking about how to make money online or through mobile media, etc.

(What's the old line? Want to make money in the horse and buggy business? Go into the car business.)

* Concerning donations, one of my pre-launch (think of it as spring training) posts was this one titled For some publishers "brother can you spare a dime" is the new sales pitch.