There has been a lot of talk over the past several months about the shift from print to online methods of news delivery. Reductions in advertising revenue have resulted in reporters, photojournalists, and other newspaper staff being laid off, while management looks at ways of generating sufficient revenue from a Web presence to keep their business going.
I spoke with my wife about this a few weeks ago. I mentioned to her that more people are receiving their news online. They are able to be more selective about what they read and, in turn, can avoid much of the advertising that surrounds all stories in newspapers and magazines.
She disagreed. My wife takes a ferry to work every morning. Looking around the several hundred people that she travels with, she told me that most have newspapers, her included. A few days later I took a commuter ferry myself and was intrigued to witness exactly what my wife had described — a sea of newspapers. There is still a tendency to enjoy leafing through several pages of news for the purpose of reading those stories that are important to you, as well as finding out about new subjects.
A Downward Spiral
With this in mind, how strategic is the plan for newspapers to lay off the very staff that they need to find stories and photographs that sell the paper in the first place? Surely, laying off journalists and photojournalists in order to offset the loss of ad revenue is an admission of defeat, and will cause a downward spiral over time, ending up in a defunct newspaper.
Would it not be more effective to give journalists and photojournalists the training, resources, and opportunities they need to go and find the stories required to attract more readers? More readers equals more advertising revenue. It’s a simple equation. Less journalists, fewer good photographs, and a greater reliance on a broader spectrum of news, gathered from wire services, will result in dissatisfied local readership — effectively driving people away, and to the Internet, in search of the news that they want.
I am not advocating for more ads. When I pick up a monthly fashion magazine or men’s journal, it is shocking to see as many as the first 100 pages given over to double- or single-page advertising spreads, with more ads dotted too frequently through the publication. A book of advertisements is not what I want. I am looking for content.
But content is getting thinner and of lower quality as publishers weigh up the cost of content production against the profit from ad sales. Are we reaching a tipping point where ad revenue will no longer provide the majority of income for a publication? Is there another revenue model that needs to be considered?
People Are Willing to Pay for Quality
Millions of people pay for cable TV. Millions pay for Internet access and then more for subscriptions to specific online content. Those options allow users to minimize their exposure to advertising and be able to focus more on the information they seek — whether that information is about the oil industry in the Niger Delta, or the current mental state of a Hollywood teenage starlet.
Those who have used the Internet for some time likely have come across free e-mail services. Many of them offer an “ad free” option in return for an annual fee — and they get substantial revenue from that option.
If media organizations can offer valuable, entertaining, captivating stories about local, national and international subjects, readers and viewers will pay for them. And as those media organizations establish a reputation for being great at what they do, ad revenue will follow.
I am not suggesting that there will ever be a complete shift away from ad-supported media to 100 percent subscription-based media. But I am suggesting that laying off the resources required to sell more papers which, in turn, will drive further reductions in ad revenue, is exactly the wrong thing to do.
Instead, we need to innovate, to find new ways to present our work, online and in print. Motivate readers to want our publications, not just by producing better work, but by providing context and getting readers involved.
A recently bought my first issue of Monocle magazine. Yes, it has ads. Yes, it is higher priced than others. But its tagline, “A Briefing on Global Affairs, Business, Culture & Design,” is completely supported by amazing content, a huge variety of excellent photographs, and interesting inserts that educate me about many topics. There is even a manga-like comic section in the back for some lighter reading.
No Time to Panic
Radio was going to be the death of newspapers — didn’t happen. TV was going to wipe out radio — also didn’t happen. Video was going to reduce the need for TV stations — likewise.
The Internet was going to negate all of the above. Guess what? It isn’t going to happen.
And the sooner that we accept that, and begin to understand that there is viable business to be had from print publications, the sooner we can stop worrying about where the next paycheck is going to come from and, instead, focus on doing a better job every day.