December 26, 2013

#Newspapers - how and why to make the digital-only leap

Note that I said digital-only, not digital-first, and especially not done in the dumb way by a company like Digital First Media, or the dumb plus half-assed way by Advance. That said, as of late November, DFM has seen the paywall light, in a move that must be giving the likes of Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirky heart attacks.

I said digital-only, like Jeff Bezos (pre-Washington Post purchase) I guess expects papers to be when he predicted the demise of the (hardcopy) daily newspaper in 20 years.

The answer? Put out quality news. Put up that paywall. Stop treating digital and hardcopy as the same, and, like the Economist, start thinking about how to become digital first while still producing serious news. As "Newsosaur" Alan Mutter notes, newspaper ad sales continue to sag. And, per his eight-year timeline, the sag started before the housing bubble really started bursting except in a select few places, so can't even really blame that.

There's other reasons for separating digital and print, and preparing for a digital-first future. Online ads, more and more, look for not just different software skills, but different temperaments, focuses, and angles, for one thing.

And, if you want to be really radical, when you go digital first? Drop those wire service subscriptions. Until the news aggregators have to pay high enough for them to put up paywalls, you simply can't compete.

So drop AP and Reuters.

Now, that said, this would be a nightmare from their point of view. So what. If you're an individual paper, you're not here to subsidize wire services.

On the flip side, there is some truth to how going online only, and totally, not a hybrid like Advance Publications is doing with its major papers, frees up a lot of overhead. (And I'm talking about online-only as Net-HTML style only; no "e-editions" of PDFs of hardcopy newspaper pages.)

Obviously, pagination copy editors are gone. A small portion of them will be kept around for line-type copy editing, though I don't think it will be many; even larger newspapers will be cheap here. (And, with Adobe going to the cloud, on a subscription basis, including forced buys for updates, you escape having to have so many copies of InDesign, unless, of course, you dodge that by going back to Quark.)

As for a website? Teach the managing editor, sports editor and other guys who now paginate how to use Wordpress (the website version, not the blogging one). That way, you also dump TownNews or whoever else is providing your web services and likely overcharging you.

Printing press? If you're a daily of any size, you own your own. Well, now you don't have to pay pressmen, or press maintenance, or buy upgrades.

The rest of your "overhead" you lose?
1. No more paper and ink purchases.
2. No more maintenance on your printing press
3. No more maintenance on your press building
4. No more property taxes on the building or the press after you sell them, or ...
4A. The luxury of higher property taxes from renting a press building for something else
5. No more pressman salaries
6. No more delivery drivers, driver salaries, etc.
7. Reductions in your circulation department, as well as its overhead.
8. Reductions in copy editor staff. (If you care about editorial quality, you'll keep some, to copy-edit stories, do website content management, retrain for new website work, etc.)
9. No more hassles with delivery of hardcopy inserts to your press

For nondailies, some of this overhead still applies
So does:
1A. No more Postal Service hassles, including not having to be a USPS pawn played off against Valassis and other inserters
2A. No more customer service hassles with subscribers from deteriorating USPS service.
3A. If you're a liberal small-town paper publisher, the schadenfreude of largely whiter, tea partyish older folks having to get used to an online paper because their tea party Congresscritters were trying to kill the USPS via whatever financialization means possible so as to privatize postal service.

Advantages for media consumers
1. Possible elimination of the temptation to add debt by purchasing legacy hardcopy papers from old-school moguls
2. Reduction in the glitz factor of becoming a vanity newspaper owner

 Note 1: If you're a paper as big as the Dallas Morning News, and can't see fit to put a general-purpose "search" box on your home page, don't even think of coming close to going digital only. That said, when you're the Dallas Morning News and you're stupid enough to junk your paywall, and instead think you'll make more money off a separate "premium" website, again, don't even think of coming close to going digital only.

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