Friday, December 11, 2009

Editor & Publisher, RIP

Editor & Publisher, the leading periodical covering the newspaper industry for more than a century, has announced it is ceasing publication, and the reaction has been curious.

Steve Outing, a long-time columnist for E&P and an advocate for free online content, writes a blog post proclaiming that this was a day we all knew was coming. There are other criticisms of E&P that suggest it didn’t embrace the Internet as aggressively as it should have.

Really? E&P followed the business model that Outing and others have been promoting – produce unique content, put it online as quickly as possible, reject print as old-fashioned and unsustainable, and rely on advertising supported by traffic "driven" to the web site.

And yet, it failed. Perhaps its failure was unavoidable. A large share of E&P’s traditional revenue had been Help Wanted ads for the newspaper business. Like Craigslist has decimated the classified revenues of many local newspapers, online alternatives displaced E&P as the place to go to look for a job in the newspaper business. There can be no doubt that the loss of that revenue source was a major dagger in E&P’s heart.

Yet, there has been no better daily reporting of the newspaper business than that provided by E&P online. The print magazine has been a staple of American newsrooms for decades, but when it became available online for free, most of us eventually dropped our print subscriptions. I think it’s safe to say that a great majority of us would have gladly paid a reasonable fee for the online edition, but we were never asked.

No, instead E&P bought the line of folks like Outing and others who said that asking for money for online content was an anachronism no longer an option in this brave, new digital world. (Oddly and somewhat embarrassingly, when you visit Outing’s own blog site you’ll get a pop-up window asking for a voluntary donation. Steve, please, if your work is valuable, set a price and require payment, but don’t beg.)

Our industry needs the reporting provided by E&P, even though I’ve felt that in recent years it showed a bias toward the free-content business model in its reporting that I found grating and lacking in journalistic objectivity. But there is no alternative to E&P out there.

The magazine has been kind over the years to the Post Register, highlighted by an in-depth and very positive profile of our newspaper by Joe Strupp a couple of years ago. It’s been the only place to go for breaking news in our business, and much of the reporting in its monthly print edition has been significant. I fear, however, that it bought the traffic-is-king argument to its ultimate demise.

2 comments:

  1. Roger: I also answered your comment over on my blog ... http://j.mp/8DqNcT

    1. Voluntary donations pop-up on my site: I've been using my blog to experiment with several new alpha services that aim to help bloggers bring in money from their loyal readers/users voluntarily. You got that screen because you'd visited my blog at least 5 times. You'll see me try more experiments on the blog from other fledgling start-ups working in this space. It's not about putting a few dollars in my pocket for my blog, but playing around with new ideas to see what works and what doesn't.

    2. I don't agree with you that E&P's content was unique. Especially with coverage of digital and mobile and the impact on newspapers, lots of other sources cover that. A newspaper professional could live without E&P and use multiple other (free) sources and get a good picture of what's happening in the media world that affects his company. For the older coverage of presses and print circulation, yes, you can argue that that was unique and maybe E&P could have charged for that.

    3. I think you are painting an inaccurate caricature of me. I am not a "content wants to be free" zealot. I've been consistent in my writing that unless your news content is truly unique, you won't have much success trying to sell it on the web. Most readers will seek out the easily available competitors who offer the same or similar, even if it's lower quality. And trying to charge on the web can bring out new competitors who will try to make it on the free/freemium model because you've given them an opening, and the cost to publish online are so low, while you still have to deal with traditional high print production and distribution costs. But I've long said that publishers can charge for truly unique content that benefits the reader willing to pay. Also, I think that for news in general, we can get people to pay for a better experience than what they get for free (personalization, etc.). See my blog item about the Guardian's new paid iPhone app: http://j.mp/5OhpPu

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  2. Fair enough. Allow me to take issue with just one more thing to which I alluded earlier -- your claim that "we all knew this day would come for E&P." As a contractor for the magazine and a self-described expert in the field, why weren't you sounding the warning bells, particularly about E&P? I agree, its content became less "unique" over recent years. Where was your column warning E&P that you could foresee its demise?

    Ninety percent of what the Post Register produces -- and this is true of nearly every small and mid-sized daily newspaper -- is unique to us and in demand. That's how we get 55 percent of our market to buy our product every day. To give that content away just because there's a new medium out there has never made sense, and you've been consistent in arguing otherwise.

    I certainly support the idea of experimenting with pay models, but why not just say, "what I provide has enough value that I'm setting a price for it?" You don't really believe the donation model has any future, do you?

    Here's what I suspect: Anyone who "clings" to the old-fashioned idea that unique content has value that can be quantified as a price point, regardless of the delivery mode of that content, has been labeled a hard-headed dinosaur, incapable of entering a new age, much like the (pick your industry) barons of old. This has left most publishers and news executives unwilling to do what they otherwise suspected was right avoid a bifurcated business model that had no hope of success. And, in my view, you've encouraged that.

    R.

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