Innovation: The Christian Science Monitor and the need to rethink the fish wrap edition

The decision by the Christian Science Monitor to scuttle its print edition has triggered the predictable sort of back-and-forth about the future of the fish wrap edition. There are those that believe that print is doomed and believe it’s time to kill the print edition and go digital. Folks like Mark Andreessen who in an interview with Portfolio said:

“Shut off the print edition right now. You’ve got to play offense. You’ve got to do what Intel did in ’85 when it was getting killed by the Japanese in memory chips, which was its dominant business. And it famously killed the business—shut it off and focused on its much smaller business, microprocessors, because that was going to be the market of the future. And the minute Intel got out of playing defense and into playing offense, its future was secure. The newspaper companies have to do exactly the same thing.”

In fact, I think the move makes perfect sense for the Monitor, given its financial structure. And yes, quite possibly, this might make sense for The New York Times at some point in the future. For most papers, though, it doesn’t make sense now, and won’t for a long time. Much longer, in fact, than critics think.

But what’s more troubling in these discussions is that they take an either/or track. You have a print edition, or you don’t. What’s missing is the third option: Innovate around the print edition.

The fundamental problem newspapers have today is with their product, not the journalism. We give readers one product, in one form, at one time. Increasingly, that product doesn’t fit the way they lead their lives, or consume their news and information. For years, these people have been telling us that they wish there was greater choice in the way they got the print edition. Why can’t I just get the sports section? Or the business section? Yet no one has really tried to tackle this issue head on.

First, I think there’s widespread agreement that things need to change. Check out this timely interview that Pat Thornton did with CSM editor John Yemma. Thornton posted this before the news broke. And he allowed me to add the podcast to our player in the left-hand column.

In the interview, Yemma was hinting at what was to come. Thornton writes:

“Yemma believes that many newspapers will be changing drastically in the coming years from the products they produce to how they are staffed. He envisions many papers publishing on less days. The first day to drop may be Saturday, because newspapers could make a joint weekend edition.”

But does this signal a need for everyone to drop the print edition? No. As usual, Alan Mutter nails the central problem:

“But a paperless strategy likely would not succeed at most general-circulation newspapers, which have no charitable endowments and draw the better part of 90% of their revenues from advertising in the print product.”

This issue was discussed at the recent New Business Models for News Summit at CUNY. The general number used as a benchmark was to assume that 90 percent of revenue came from print, and 60 percent of expenses went into print. So if you shut off the print edition, you need to make up that other 30 percent somehow. One way to do that was ruthlessly trim operational expenses. But if you cut too deeply into content producers, you’re probably throwing away whatever advantage you might have had.

Scott Rosenberg, a former newspaper guy who started Salon, breaks it down further:

“But the bigger problem isn’t psychological, its financial. I base my views on a decade of experience at Salon, trying to support an online-only newsroom with online-only revenues. It turns out that the hardest part of this massive and inevitable industrial transition is not reconstituting high-quality journalism in a new media environment. That’s only mildly hard. Top-notch journalists will always seek to do top-notch work.
The really tough part — the part that to this day remains unsolved — is figuring out how to support those top-notch journalists with the salaries and benefits they are accustomed to, and often deserve. (That’s not even taking into account the loss of jobs on the printing and distribution side. But they are disappearing eventually no matter what.) The problem today is not much easier than it was when we started Salon in 1995: Look at Politico — an online success d’estime that still earns 90 percent of its revenue from a niche print product.”

Still, print is declining. Circulation is dropping. Advertising is migrating away to online. What do you do?

First, explode the print edition and respond to this call for greater choice. Start with the morning paper. How can you offer different subscription levels to your customers? Think of it like cable television, with different tiers of service. Basic gets you the main three sections every day. Basic plus gets you those three plus an extra special section on certain days. Premium gets some extra sections on the weekends.

Circulation and delivery will cry and say it’s too complicated and costly and can’t be done. But remember, many of the delivery drivers now also deliver your paper, plus the New York Times and the Wall Street Jourrnal to your coverage areas. So they already carry multiple papers and have to figure out which to throw where. Surely they can do this with multiple versions of your own paper.

Next, create other print editions. This will vary depending on your community and geography. But if you’re publishing online first all day, can you pull that content out and create a free afternoon paper that gets dropped at transportation hubs? If public transportation is not big in your area, can you drop free editions in the cafeterias of the largest companies in your region? People who say they don’t like print, will still often pick up free, casual versions if they’re sitting on a nearby table or the train.

Finally, explore full on customization. One of my favorite projects being funded by the Knight Foundation through the News Challenge program (which also funded the Next Newsroom Project) is Printcasting.

Led by Dan Pacheco of The Bakersfield Californian, the project is working on technology that will allow people to build customized versions of a newspaper on the Web and then have that published to their printer each day. Also, check out DailyMe, which aggregates news to its site and lets you set up a daily edition that spits out of your printer at a time you choose each day.

It’s fashionable to dump on print. Turning it off is in some ways, the easy way out. But there are a lot of folks who remain passionate about getting their news in print. Or more who might engage if they had more choice.

Rethinking the print edition is the harder, but better way to go.

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3 Responses

  1. Chris, you hit the nail on the head. The either-or thinking that’s infected the industry is really focused solely on the kind of short-term financial concerns that profit-only-motivated managers brought to the business years before newspapers hit hard times. Left unaddressed are the social impacts of cutting off huge numbers of loyal print subscribers, who either won’t or can’t read the same information online. For example, in San Francisco this summer the weekly Bay View newspaper stopped printing; it had actually been losing money for years. Some said that’s fine — it’s still online. And that’s not a problem for those who sit at broadband-connected computers all day and multitask at their jobs. But the paper, which served the black community throughout the city, was the primary vehicle for a lot of people who worked on their feet, or had otherwise limited or no Internet access, a situation that disproportionately affects minority readers. That step forward technologically represents a step backward in terms of filling community information needs. It increases the social effects of the digital divide.Equally worrisome is the fundamental shift in the balance that the Monitor had previously struck in terms of revenues. The paper is essentially forfeiting $9 million in subscription revenues from dedicated readers who for generations saw a value in paying for quality news. That will never come back, since hardly any news organization has successfully charged for content online. It must be replaced entirely by online advertising revenue. Even if they’re able to quadruple or quintuple Web site ad rates in the coming years, that increased reliance on advertising will make the publication more reliant on a single, volatile and ethically problematic sector for its existence.There is no question that newspapers have to innovate in order to survive and thrive. Let’s look at news priorities, use of technology in reporting, new distribution methods. There’s much work to be done.

  2. Hi Chris and all,Very interesting post.One thought on this paragraph:”Next, create other print editions. … People who say they don’t like print, will still often pick up free, casual versions if they’re sitting on a nearby table or the train.”It’s interesting to note that minnpost.com backed off its feature of providing print versions. At first, the site solicited sponsors like coffee houses to print a .pdf version of the site each week. They stopped making the .pdf available even for home downloads in February of 2008. Would be interesting to hear more details of why. Some background here.At the same time, I can see that model being very valuable on a very local level, for neighbors to print out news for other neighbors without web access or skills, or for news organizations to repurpose their content to appeal to a different audience. I saw good reader success with Eye produced by Crystal Dempsey in Charlotte. My teenage daughter would read stuff in Eye, even though it had already appeared in the “old” newspaper that she ignored.But I’ve yet to see a sustainable advertising model shown there. I think it can be done, especially if folks recognize that the print version is about visual appeal: the kind of appeal that a still photograph or a beautiful page design can give that a Youtube video cannot. The number of experimental ‘zines with cutting-edge design is exploding in my “getting-hip” neighborhood; turnover is still an issue. At some point, a sustainable tipping point will be reached.Or at least I hope so.

  3. Michael and Andria: Thanks for posting here and you both make a lot of good points. Michael, I know you’re hard at work with moving The Public Press forward and that print is part of the vision there, which I’m glad to hear. You’re right on that in a lot cases, access is still an issue, and print is simply a great way to reach certain folks.Andria, we’ll see how some of the ad models around this shape up. I think the Printcasting.com folks have some interesting ideas there as well, that go beyond just straight up running ads. But time will tell, eh? But for the reason Michael mention above, yes, having a print solution for neighborhoods to print out and share with folks unable or not inclined to go online.

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