SocraticGadfly: Dallas Morning News keeps doubling down on digital stupidity

January 10, 2015

Dallas Morning News keeps doubling down on digital stupidity

The Dallas Morning News seems to want to out-stupid Advance's products and a few others when it comes to becoming a digital-first daily paper.

Combine a history of stupid ideas, followed with a lack of commitment, a lack of follow-through and so forth, and it's no surprise.

Let's remind everybody that the Snooze's history of digital stupidity — and there's no other phrase for it — goes back 15 years to its bromance with the CueCat. Ahh, how can we forget the "Pet Rock" of online newspapers? No, really:
"I think that this is a nice Pet Rock for print publishers," says Vin Crosbie, managing partner of Digital Deliverance, a Connecticut-based consulting firm specializing in online publishing strategies. Crosbie is one of many industry insiders who has criticized the device on the Online-News e-mail list.

It's not really surprising. I've been blogging about its digital stupidity for 18 months on a semi-regular basis.

First, D Magazine reported that the Snooze was abandoning its online paywall in September, 2013, to instead put up a premium website, with "premium" content, plus membership tchotchkes.

NOTE: That said, nine months later, and, after not heeding the advance warnings of people like your lowly blogger or media analyst pro Jack Shafer, who writes well about the stupidity of premium sites, what happened?

The Snooze killed the premium site. Another sign of Snooze mismanagement.

It turns out I was setting the digital intelligence bar for the Snooze way, way, too high, in my initial warning.

Part of the premium website's paywall "come-on" sales pitch? The Snooze tells us we can buy our way out of seeing so many ads!!! Apparently the Dallas Morning News is betting its readers are too dumb to know about AdBlock if part of the sales pitch for its new premium website is "seeing fewer ads." (Doorknob help us all if the paper's marketing staff [since IT people wouldn't be this dumb, but see below] find out that some of us use Ghostery or other add-ons that block tracking cookies.)

Plus, analysts note the Snooze has struggled to find the paywall sweet spot for some time.
The News’ plan “is something of a disappointment,” said Barry L. Lucas, senior vice president of research for Gabelli & Co. in New York. “It’s the second or third go-round for the website.”
Meanwhile, Jason Dyer, chief marketing officer for The News, says:
 “What we’re going to sell is experience,” said Dyer, who joined the newspaper in January from Google. “I don’t know if there’s anything like it.”
They say insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. I guess Dyer calls that "experience." Especially when somebody coming from Google, and to a halfway techie city like Dallas, thinks people will fall for this as a selling point, the "fewer ads." 

Maybe he set the intelligence bar too low on Snooze readers.

Of course, the Snooze could have put the paywall back up on its basic website.

But, it didn't. Because it's the Snooze and digital stupidity reigns in what's the last and only outpost of the one-time print empire of A.H. Belo.

Which means there's less and less margin for digital stupidity error all the time.

Further showing the stupidity? In the story announcing the kill of the premium website was this:
“Newspapers say we provide value, so why wouldn’t you pay,” said Steve Buttry, a visiting scholar at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Communication. Payment “is a tough sell almost everywhere.”
Steve Buttery, a one-time mouthpiece flak for Digital First Media, has never met a paywall he likes. He won't admit the success, even if it's a leaky wall, of a place like the New York Times. If the Snooze is listening to people like him, no wonder it continues to get all of its digital decisions wrong.

Two months later, came the next stupidity. The Snooze sold its share of online automotive advertiser  Oh, it's nice short-term investment money, and the sale did allow the Snooze to keep exclusive local rights, but at a higher rate than before, and not permanently.

In exchange, the Snooze and partners sold their approximately 75 percent non-Gannett share for about 75-80 percent of what Ken Doctor estimated it was worth just 10 months ago. 

However, while keeping local exclusiveness, the Snooze loses any annual dividend, and that exclusive local control, as Doctor expected, is only temporary — for five years.

So, starting in 2020, the autos section of the Snooze, in print, will likely look a fair amount different. Doctor explains:
If and when all the McClatchy, Tribune, and Gannett newspapers and The Dallas Morning News lose that favored relationship, they’ll be in the same boat as other papers. Some of those other newspapers have themselves been affiliates, selling dealer packages in their markets. But they didn’t get wholesale rates — they got retail ones. More recently, some of those retail affiliates, a number of them owned by Digital First Media, have lost or ended their relationships with The result: a loss of 50 percent or more in auto revenue. That’s the kind of challenge the 121 dailies collectively owned by Tribune, Gannett, McClatchy, and A.H. Belo will face.

And, if you look at a typical Saturday Snooze? It's about 35 percent adhole, but about half that 35 percent is cars. Oops.

Doctor gives us dollar signs:
Overall, figure that about 8 to 15 percent of all newspaper ad revenues are related to auto. That makes the changeover a very big deal.
Oops. Let's say it's 15 percent in Dallas. Let's say it keeps two-thirds after five years. Still, it's lost 5 percent of its ad revenue for a short-term mess of pottage.

But, they're going to invest that money in something digital. Kind of sort of:
“This transaction is an excellent outcome for our company,” Jim Moroney, chairman, chief executive and president of A. H. Belo said today in a statement. “The proceeds from this transaction will allow A. H. Belo to continue with its strategy of investing in advertising and marketing services companies to allow for revenue growth and diversification. As always, the company will balance investment opportunities with alternatives to continue to return capital to shareholders.”
But, if ad sales are declining, and drawing fewer dinero in click-throughs, because of the AdBlock you still don't acknowledge, well, er, um, uh....

And that gets us to ...

The latest and greatest wrongness?

Touting its PDF e-edition, in online links, in house ads in the print paper, and more.

The Snooze, in the story announcing the end of the paid premium website, noted the growth of mobile readers, and hoped to make some money there off apps.

First, apps are a mug's game in the media biz.

Second, as for touting the e-edition? 

That runs totally counter to growth on mobile.

Almost nobody wants to try to read a newspaper page PDF on a tablet, and absolutely nobody wants to do that on a smartphone.

OK, so you produce different versions of the e-paper — one for computers, one for "normal" tablets and smartphones, and a "branded" one, apped up for an iPad.

And, that's costing how much extra time and manpower? For something that few people would even pay for because you have a free website?

If the Snooze isn't forced to be slouching toward Fort Worth and into the arms of a JOA with the StartleGram by 2020, when it loses the benefits of past ownership of, I'll be highly surprised. 

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