Sunday, July 31, 2011

Boots on the ground

One of the oddly refreshing outcomes of the downturn in newspaper profits over the past decades has been, in some cases, the separation of the true believers from the poseurs.

While companies like Gannett strip their newspapers almost mercilessly to maintain profits (and as Gannett executives get paid big bonuses to do it), the family that controls the New York Times has stopped paying itself dividends and this year introduced a subscription model for its web sites.

The move was belated (the Wall Street Journal did it 10 years ago, as did the Post Register), it was still bold in a business that has eschewed paywalls.

How’s that working for them? The New York Times now has 400,000 paying online subscribers, plus another 756,000 print subscribers who have requested and received an online password at no additional cost. More important, the Times is repaying its debt quicker than expected and appears to be on the financial mend. But there’s more

Here’s writer Seth Mnookin in New York Magazine:

“The bottom line for the paywall is more than the bottom line: The Times has taken a do-or-die stand for hard-core, boots-on-the-ground journalism, for earnest civic purpose, for the primacy of content creators over aggregators, and has brought itself back from the precipice.”

The battle may be look promising, but the war is not over, of course. It never is. The Internet is remaking the newspaper business, and it’s a grinding process. The high -- some would say obscene -- newspaper profit margins of the latter half of the 20th Century are gone forever. But there’s good reason to believe that enough Americans still care about “boots-on-the-ground journalism” to keep it a sustainable business.

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the Times’ often-maligned publisher and chairman, is the first to admit that there’s much left to do.

“Let’s be clear—we’re three months into this,” he told Mnookin. “It proves that we’re on a good track, better than we had imagined, but we’ve got to continue to invest. We’ve got to continue to change and adapt and grow from this experience. And we will.”

There are still a lot of naysayers when it comes to the future of newspapers generally and online subscriptions specifically. But so far, all of those naysayers have been wrong about nearly everything. They expected newspapers to disappear (there are 1,450 daily newspapers in the U.S., but the news about them seems to focus on the very few that have failed).

The truth is that the Internet’s wrecking of the tried-and-true newspaper business model was then exacerbated by the worst recession in four generations. In some ways, it’s remarkable that newspapers still have so many boots on the ground.

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