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By Ulf Wolf: Citizen engagement and responsibility in the digital age.

The Writing is on the Digital Wall

February 27, 2009 By

I think it was in December of 1996 when I discovered, much to my amazement actually, that I could read the Los Angeles Times online. Not the slick, graphically authentic version we have today, a dozen or so years later, but even so, the news were there, the Dodgers results, the weather, everything (except the comics, which still haven't made it into the online edition) I looked for in the LA Times.

Question: Did I renew my print subscription next year?

Answer: No.

And I wondered, I really did, how on earth can they afford to do this? Do they not realize that they will lose print subscriptions if they do?

Today, the LA Times, along with it's owner Tribune Co., are in Chapter 11. I guess that answered my question. But I also recently read an article by David Westphal where he reports LA Times' editor Russ Stanton as saying that "The Times' Web site revenue now exceeds its editorial payroll costs."

Isn't that saying that they could stop their presses right now and (not considering the Tribune's $8 Billion debt) run as a profitable business? Is that, then, the future model for newspapers?

I can hear a lot of trees in a lot of forests nod their sagely heads: "Yes, yes. And so it should be. Sticks and stones are for the birds, words are what really hurt us."

And right on cue, the bbc runs an interesting article this morning about The Crisis in the US newspaper industry where it reports that several big-city newspapers are running out of steam, and time; among them the San Francisco Chronicle, whose owners, according to the bbc, "on Wednesday announced they were planning to cut a 'significant' number of jobs to meet cost-cutting targets, and that if the targets are not met, then the paper would be sold or closed down."
 
According to the same article, The San Francisco Chronicle--which was founded in 1865, soon after the gold-rush hit California-- lost more than $50m in 2008, and so far 2009 is looking even worse for the title.

Circulation fell by 7% in the six-month period running up to 30 September 2008, and advertising revenues are plummeting.

Other big-city papers sailing precariously close to the fiscal wind include the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Denver's Rocky Mountain News, and the Tucson Citizen.

James Surowiecki of the New Yorker hits it on the head, "You take readers and advertisers who were already migrating away from print, and add a steep recession, and you've got serious trouble."

That is what struck a chord. We are moving away from print.

Each morning, to see if all is well (or not) with the world, I do a quick tour starting with http://news.bbc.co.uk/, after which I normally head over to http://www.guardian.co.uk/, then for a quick sanity check at http://www.latimes.com/ and, for good measure, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/.

Then, to check some other views on some topics I visit http://www.npr.org/ and perhaps even http://www.rollingstone.com/ and http://www.salon.com/, and http://www.wired.com/.

Please note, I never step out to pick up the print edition of anything from the front lawn (or the newspaper box). Haven't for well over a decade, and never plan to ever again.

So the writing is on the digital wall.

According to the bbc, the New York Times is struggling to service debts of some $400m, with dwindling cash reserves and plunging revenue.

And the Tribune Company is not the only publisher to file for Chapter 11; three other newspaper companies have also filed for bankruptcy in recent months: the Star Tribune Holding Corporation (which owns the Minneapolis Star-Tribune), the Journal Register Company (which owns the New Haven Register and a number of other titles in the North-East), and Philadelphia Newspapers LLC (which owns Philadelphia's two top newspapers, the Inquirer and the Daily News).
 
Traditionally, newspapers made money from two sources: readers (who either paid by subscription or at the newsstand) and advertisers. Of course, as more and more newspapers began making their content available on the internet free of charge, the first source of income dried up--pretty much a no-brainer, that one.

For a while papers managed to make up for that loss of revenue stream by increased advertising; but soon ran into online competition from websites like craigslist.com, which began to seriously cut into the advertising revenues as well.

Add to that the current recession, where the advertising dollar may be one of the first ones to go when budgets are slashed, and we have newspapers operating on seriously reduced revenue streams.

I believe that the printed paper is a dying business model. News, of course, is not, and never has been. Human beings are a curious breed (in both meanings of that word) and they want to know. But they want to know digitally--that's what I have to conclude.

It's drawing-board time for the press.

 


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Digital Citizen Pulse

Digital Citizen Engagement - or how Government-IT empowers Citizen Participation and Input - is an important aspect of 21st century life given all the challenges communities face. This is a subject very dear to my heart and one I like to keep a constant finger on. This blog shares my findings and impressions with those interested.