The New York Times: Out of print in ten years?

It isn’t anything particularly special to hear people talking about the declining market for print newspapers, and how market dynamics and demographic trends have put the traditional newspaper publishing model at risk.

At the same time, most newspaper publications have found it quite challenging to “migrate” their print customers to paid-subscription digital platforms. The plethora of free news sites online makes it difficult to entice people to pay for digital access to the news – even if the quality of the “free” coverage is lower.

New York Times CEO Mark Thompson, appearing on CNBC’s Power Lunch program (February 12, 2018).

But it was quite something to hear a forecast made by Mark Thompson, The New York Times’ CEO.  Earlier this month, Thompson made remarks during CNBC’s Power Lunch broadcast that amounted to a prediction that the NYT’s print edition won’t be around in another ten years.

Thompson went on to explain that his company’s objective is to build the digital product even while print is going away:

“The key thing for us is that we’re pivoting. Our plan is to go on serving our loyal print subscribers as long as we can.  But meanwhile, to build up the digital business so that we can have a successful growing company and a successful news operation long after print is gone.”

It’s one thing for newspapers in various cities across the country to be facing the eventuality of throwing in the towel on their print product. It’s quite another for a newspaper as vaunted as The New York Times to be candidly predicting this result happening.

It would seem that the NYT, along with the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and possibly USA Today would be the four papers most able to preserve their print editions because of their business models (USA Today’s hotel distribution program) or simply because of their vaunted reputations as America’s only daily newspapers with anything approaching nationwide distribution.

I guess this is what makes the Thompson remarks so eyebrow-raising. If there isn’t a long-term future for The New York Times when it comes to print, what does that say about the rest of the newspaper industry?  “Hopeless” seems like the watchword.

It will be interesting indeed if, a decade from now, we find no print newspapers being published in this country save for hyper-local news publications – the ones which rely on print subscribers seeing their friends and family in the paper for weddings, funerals, community activities, school sports and other such parochial (or vanity) purposes.

Interesting … but a little depressing, too.

Fact Checkers: The “New-Old” Job in Journalism

The topic of “fake news” is all over the journalism ecosphere these days. It’s the subject of charges and countercharges tossed back and forth between politicians, industry specialists, the scientific community and the media.

In the current environment, even the slightest mistake in the media – no matter how innocuous – can turn into a contentious social media debate, whereas in the past it might have merited just a quick corrective notation as a follow-up.

These days, more often than not everyone gets sullied in the process – even innocent parties caught in the crossfire.  So, it isn’t surprising that as the issue of “fake news” has risen in prominence, fact checking in journalism has taken on more importance than ever.

An IFCN global summit conference held in Madrid Spain in July 2017.

In 2015, the Poynter Institute established its International Fact-Checking Network to support initiatives aimed at ensuring better accuracy and journalistic best practices. In addition, over the past year the New York Times and several other prominent newspapers have brought more fact checkers on board – not merely to verify the information being reported, but also to work in “real time” with journalists – checking breaking news stories for accuracy as they are being produced.

These new fact-checking resources have been added without a lot of fanfare, but it’s a quiet acknowledgement that the “fake news” controversy is one that strikes at the heart of the press’s reputation.

But there’s a significant shortcoming:  The new emphasis on fact-checking is consequential in just one corner of the news universe.  The arena of “news” now extends well beyond traditional outlets to also encompass social media platforms, blogs and a myriad of informational websites that frequently offer a distinct “point of view” in their reporting.

So, while the fact-checking resurgence may help buttress the reputation of “legacy” news organizations such as high-profile newspapers, national TV networks and marquee online news sites, that doesn’t mean it’s reaching into the many other places where people encounter and consume news.

I suspect that the “fake news” phenomenon is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, despite all of the good-faith efforts to keep it in check.

Local TV news viewership continues to decline … even as stations ramp up their news coverage.

How’s this for an ironic twist: The Pew Research Center is reporting that the local TV newscasts if ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC affiliates across the United States are continuing to show viewership declines, even as stations are increasing the amount of the local news content they broadcast.

According to Pew, which analyzed Nielsen results for its report, “late” news (10 or 11 pm) suffered an 11% decline to 20.3 million viewers across the United States during 2016.

Early evening news (5 or 6 pm time slots) lost ~9% in viewership, dropping to 22.8 million viewers.

Morning news? It didn’t fare any better, falling a similar ~9% to just 10.8 million viewers.

But despite these continuing declines, there’s scant evidence that local station executives see local news as a losing proposition.

Instead, they appear to be doubling down on it, figuring that local news is one of the few remaining points of differentiation against online news sites that usually don’t provide very much in the way of in-depth local coverage.

Underscoring this, according to a survey conducted by the Radio-Television-Digital News Association and Hofstra University, local TV stations averaged 5.7 hours of news programming per weekday during 2016, which is up slightly from 5.5 hours in 2015.

Stats aside, one has to wonder how much longer local news can continue to be a differentiating factor for local TV stations? Those very same stations are creating their own competition by operating robust websites of their own.  And of course, many people have become quite adept at punching their own zip codes into weather apps to obtain “micro-local” weather information.

Sports? There are thousands of websites and apps available that provide fingertip results and stats down to the most minute level of detail.

Furthermore, as the older population “ages out,” the notion of sitting down at a prescribed hour every day to watch the news on television is likely to go the way of newspapers.  Which is to say, an inexorable slide into irrelevance.

It just isn’t how the world operates any longer … even if one is 60 or 70 years old.

More statistics from the Pew Research Center report can be accessed here.

The fundamental problem with newspapers’ online endeavors.

olnIt’s no secret that the newspaper industry has been struggling with finding a lucrative business model to augment or replace the traditional print medium supported by subscriptions and advertising.

The problem is, their efforts are thwarted by market realities at every intersection, setting up the potential for head-on crashes everywhere.

In October, the results of an analysis conducted by several University of Texas researchers were published that illustrate the big challenges involved.

The researchers pinpointed 2007 as the year in which most large newspapers’ online versions had been available for about a decade, meaning that they had become “mature” products. The evaluation looked at the total local online readership of the Top 50 American newspapers, and found that nearly all of them have been stagnant in terms of growth over the past decade.

Even worse, since 2011 more than half of the papers have actually lost online readership.

The issue isn’t that people aren’t going online to consume news; the precipitous drop in print newspaper subscriptions proves otherwise. The problem is that many consumers are going to news aggregator sites – places like Yahoo News, CNN.com and other non-newspaper websites – rather than to sites operated by the newspapers.

That leaves online newspapers attracting disappointing advertising revenues that can’t begin to make up for the loss of those dollars on the print side. To wit, the University of Texas study reported that total newspaper industry digital ad revenues increased only about 15% between 2010 and 2014, going from ~$3 billion to ~$3.5 billion.  That’s pretty paltry.

The problem goes beyond ad revenue concerns too. In a market survey conducted in 2012, two-thirds of newspaper subscribers stated that preferred the print version of their daily newspaper over the web version.

I find that finding totally believable. I am a print subscriber to The Wall Street Journal whereas I read other newspaper fare online.  My daily time spent with the print WSJ ranges from 30 minutes to an hour, and I peruse every section of the paper “linearly.”  It’s an immersive experience.

With online newspaper sites, I hunt for one or two topics, check out the headlines and maybe a story or two, and that’s it. It’s more a “hit and run” operation, and I’m out of there in five minutes or less.

The notion of carefully picking my way through all of the menu items on an online newspaper’s navbar? Forget it.

And with such a tentative relationship with online newspapers, do I want to pay for that online access? Nope.

Magnify that to the entire market, and the web traffic stats show the same thing, which is why online advertising revenues are so underwhelming.

Once again, the optimistic goals of newspaper marketers are running up against cold, hard reality. The fact is, people don’t “read” online in the traditional sense, and they’re quick to jump from place to place, in keeping with the “ADD” most all of us have developed in our online behaviors.

There just isn’t a good way that newspapers can take their product and migrate it to the web without losing readers, losing ad revenue – and indeed, losing the differentiation they’ve built for quality long-form journalism.  And so the conundrum continues …

What about your print vs. online newspaper reading habits?  Are your experiences different from mine?  Please leave a comment for the benefit of other readers.

Downsizing hits America’s most prestigious business media properties.

bwsjThis past week, the business media world was buzzing about the inadvertent release of information concerning pending layoffs at Barron’s magazine, thanks to editor-in-chief Ed Finn mistakenly hitting “reply all” on a message intended for just one person.

But the more interesting news is what’s happening right now with two of America’s most important national print publishing properties: Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

Up until now, it was thought that a select handful of America’s largest and most pervasive publications with national reach and reputation would be the ones least susceptible to problems befalling the industry regarding declining advertising revenues and changing news consumption habits.

At or near the top of the list of those rarefied properties were these two publications for sure.

But now we know a different reality — or at least a more complicated one. WSJ editor-in-chief Gerard Baker announced last week that the publication is seeking a “substantial number” of employee buyouts to limit the extent of involuntary layoffs that will need to happen otherwise.

The WSJ buyout offer been extended to all news employees worldwide – managerial and non-managerial – and includes a lucrative voluntary severance benefit that’s 1.5 times larger than the company’s standard buyout package.

WSJ employees will need to make up their minds quickly, as the buyout offer is good only until the end of October.

wsjbAs for Barron’s, its situation became public only after the Ed Finn memo was received in the New York City newsroom of The Wall Street Journal in error.  The Finn memo, which had been intended for Dow Jones Media Group publisher Almar Latour, speculates on how The Wall Street Journal’s announcement might affect an upcoming round of layoffs at Barron’s.

That bit was “new news” to pretty much everyone.

Aside from the “drama” of news scoops happening because of unintentional actions, the bigger question is this: What do these layoffs and buyouts portend?  Is it the end of the adjustments – or just the beginning?

Clues to that answer come in Gerard Baker’s memo, where he reveals that The Wall Street Journal has “begun an extensive review of operations as part of a broader transformation program.”

Let’s see what kind of “silver bullet” business strategy they end up devising – and whether it will have its intended effect.

Memo to newspaper publishers: Don’t ‘diss’ your print subscribers.

nindA few weeks ago, the Boston Globe stubbed its toe in major fashion when it changed the company it uses to deliver ~115,000 hard-copy versions of the daily paper in the Boston metro area.

And the problems continue to persist even now.

No doubt, the decision to switch home delivery services was made out of a desire to save money rather than to improve service.  And one can understand why management might have been looking for ways to cut production costs on the print version compared to the “go-go” online/digital realm.

But focusing on solely millennials and other younger customers can come back to “bite you on the bottom line” – which is exactly what happened in the case of the Globe.

Evidently, the new delivery service was untested – at least in terms of taking on a client with volumes as large as Boston’s leading newspaper.

As it turned out, tens of thousands of papers weren’t delivered, sparking a cataclysm of loud, negative feedback.

The pique of customers went well-beyond failing to receive something that had been paid for. In the case of the Globe’s extensive Baby Boomer subscriber base, missing home delivery struck at the heart of the time-honored rituals of how they receive and consume their news.

Consider this: The average subscriber to the Boston Globe pays around $700 per year for their home-delivery subscription.

That’s more than $80 million per year in income for the paper – before factoring in advertising revenue.

Of course, the costs of producing and delivering the print product exceeds that of digital. But this subscription base is more loyal than digital news consumers precisely because they value how the news is presented to them.

Let’s not forget that for people born before 1965, most are emotionally attached to print far more than those in other demographic groups. As Gordon Plutsky, a director of applied intelligence at IDG, writes about the Boston Globe snafu:

“[It’s] not just the physical paper, but the ritual of getting the paper off their driveway or front steps and starting their day spreading out the broadsheet and scanning the news. They missed curling up with coffee or tea and working the crossword puzzle or cutting coupons.  It is easy to forget that until the mid-‘90s, this was the only way to read the news and, for Boomers, it is how they learned to read and interact with the world.  Their brains are wired for print in the same way Gen Z is wired for mobile.”

Perhaps the Globe’s business and administrative staffers lost sight of that fact. Maybe they treated their “unsexy” print subscribers as an afterthought while forgetting that this segment of their customer base is critical to the very survival of their paper – and the industry – in a period of transition.

True, delivering the news to print customers is more expensive than doing so digitally. But these customers are more predictable and loyal, versus fickle and finicky.

… But only if the product is delivered. Fail in that fundamental function, and the gig is up.

nosThe Boston Globe’s print readers are hardly unique. Recently, Pew Research Center surveyed consumers in three urban markets.  Despite the differences in these markets (geographic, economic, social), a highly significant percentage of respondents in all three metro areas reported that they read only the print version of their local newspaper:

  • Denver, CO: ~46% read only the print version of their local newspaper
  • Macon, GA: ~48% read print only
  • Sioux City, IA-NE-SD: ~53% read print only

This isn’t to suggest that Boomer audiences are a bunch of rubes who aren’t connected to the digital world. Far from it:  They tend to be better educated and more wealthy (with more disposable income) than other demographic segments.  Their attachment to print isn’t in lieu of digital, but more in concert with their online habits.

Unlike other generations, they’re not single-channel as much as omni-channel consumers. The keys to newspaper publishers’ continued relevance are bound up in how they serve this older but critically important segment of their customer base.

Speaking personally, I can “take it or leave it” when it comes to print.  I don’t subscribe to a daily print paper, and the bulk of my news comes to me from digital sources.  But there’s something quite comfortable about sitting down with a quality daily paper and reading the news stories therein — including long-form journalism pieces that are difficult to find very many places these days.

There are millions more people across the country that are happy to continue paying for the privilege of consuming the news in just such a fashion.  Indeed, they’re the newspaper industry’s most loyal readers.

Harris Poll: What Americans say they want in news coverage.

When it comes to the news, Americans say they’re tired of so much attention on celebrity gossip and scandal stories … but are they really?

news mediaExperience has shown that healthy foods on the menu at fast food establishments test well in consumer attitudinal surveys — only to bomb big time when actually introduced.

It seems as though many people answer the way they think they’re “supposed” to respond, even though they’ll never actually opt for the apple slices in lieu of the order of fries.

I wonder if the same dynamics are at work in a recent Harris Poll, which queried ~2,500 Americans age 18 or over about their preferences for news topics.  The online survey was conducted in August 2014, with the results released this past week.

For starters, three-fourths of the respondents felt that celebrity gossip and scandal stories receive too much coverage.

Indeed, many believe that entertainment news in general receives too much attention in the news:

  • Celebrity gossip and scandal stories: ~76% claim too much attention is paid in the news
  • Entertainment news in general: ~49%
  • Professional spectator sports: ~44%
  • Politics and elections: ~33%

And which topics do people feel aren’t covered sufficiently in the news? It’s everything that’s “good for you”:

  • Education topics: ~47% believe too little attention is paid in the news
  • Local/national humanitarian issues: ~47%
  • Science topics: ~45%
  • Government corruption and scandals: ~44%
  • Corporate corruption and white collar crime: ~42%
  • Global humanitarian issues: ~33%
  • Health topics: ~30%

I suspect that the “actual reality” is different from how the survey participants responded. If news organizations weren’t seeing keen interest generated by their celebrity, entertainment and sports stories, they would stop producing them.  Simple as that.

Harris Poll logoYou can view more findings from the Harris survey, including data tabulations, here. Among the interesting findings is the degree of trust people have for various different news media:  network TV news, local TV news, local newspapers, national newspapers, online news sources.

Hint: trust levels are nearly where they should be …

What are your thoughts about news topics? Which ones are getting proper coverage versus too much?  Please share your observations with other readers here.