Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The latest on leveraging the value of journalism

Advertising Age has come up with a startling conclusion in a recent article on newspapers and "pay walls." (I hate the term "pay walls." A better term is "online subscriptions.")
"The newspapers that are going to have the best advantage instituting the pay walls are going to be the big national guys with differentiating editorial like The Wall Street Journal and some of the smaller guys that offer information that truly is not available in other media" (my emphasis), said Randy Novak, director of newspaper strategy at NSA Media, a unit of the Interpublic Group of Cos. that specializes in buying local print media. "The ones that are going to struggle, I think, are the ones that fall in between, if they don't provide something that can't be readily accessed elsewhere."
Heaven knows, I want to be neither snarky nor self-congratulatory, but ... here's what I wrote in 2002:
Myth #1: Only large newspapers with large reporting staffs and a national reputation can create content unique enough to sell online.

I argue that the very opposite is true. The more local your newspaper, the more unique your content for your intended audience and the more likely it is to have a quantifiable value (in dollars and cents) to that audience. My newspaper, the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho, has the world’s most unique content, if you’re looking for news about eastern Idaho. From police logs to obituaries to investigative journalism to sports scores to who’s playing in what pub to how to tie a fly to snap up cutthroat trout to opinions on local issues, no other news organization in the world can compete with us when it comes to serving our intended audience. Our newsroom is larger than the local TV newsrooms combined. We have the second largest news staff in the state of Idaho.
I further concluded: "My newspaper is hardly unique. Nearly every daily newspaper in North America outside of a metro market can make the same claim. So why are you giving that unique local content away on the Internet when you expect people to pay for it after you print it on dead trees with ink that rubs off on the reader’s hands?"

Advertising Age also reports a somewhat troubling trend -- newspapers double-counting their subscribers. Here's how it works: Both of the major newspaper circulation auditing companies (ABC and CAC) allow newspapers with a pay wall to essentially divide the monthly subscription cost into two parts -- one to cover the print subscription and the other for online access. Subscribers who essentially paid for one type of product (usually the print edition) are being counted twice -- once as a print subscriber and again as an online subscriber. That kind of counting has allowed the Bend (Oregon) Bulletin to report a 34 percent increase in total circulation. That's all well and good, but it doesn't really help advertisers decide where to spend their money, and that's the whole point behind audited circulation. For the record, the Post Register has qualified to do this for three years but we've chosen to report the numbers by category -- total print (between 22,000 and 25,000, depending on the day), print subscribers with an online password (about 6,000), and online only subscribers (about 550) -- rather than simply providing a consolidated number. To add to the confusion, there's another metric in play -- we get an average of 2,800 unique visits and 12,000 page views a day to our mostly subscriber-based web site, including verticals like Legacy (obituaries), Idahojobweek, Idahohomeweek, and Idahoautoweek.

Bend's circulation director does get this part right:
"The rationale of being able to use your website to increase your ad revenue through increased traffic simply has not proven accurate," said Keith Foutz, corporate circulation and operations director at Western Communications, which owns the Bulletin.
Not everyone is on board with this approach, of course. Most newspapers and newspaper companies are still holding out the hope that traffic will turn into ad dollars, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Instead, they should be building audience, which is a whole different thing. This is a distinction lost on many in the news business.

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