By the numbers: How are newspapers doing right now?
February 26, 2015
By Kevin Slimp
In some parts of the world, people can tell spring is near by the longer days and signs of life. In my world, you can tell by the trips through airports and hours spent preparing and giving speeches.
There’s no doubt that it is convention season. The crowds have been large and enthusiastic. In just a few weeks I’ve been from Nashville, TN, to Bloomington, MN, and Columbus, OH, to Edmonton, Alberta.
There are more publishers waiting to catch me after keynotes lately. When the last workshop is done, there are bigger lines wanting to talk. And what’s the question I get asked most often? “How can I get my hands on the results of your latest publisher survey?”
Your wait is up. Well, part of it is. You might remember that I conducted a survey of 614 publishers throughout the U.S. and Canada in October 2014. The results were quite interesting. Mostly, though, they led to more questions.
In late January, I sent out Survey II. So far, after two weeks, more than 300 newspaper executives have responded to the survey. Most are publishers. The results are fascinating to a guy who loves numbers.
In future columns, I’ll share some of my thoughts on the meanings of these numbers. For now, let’s take a look at some of the more interesting results.
Respondents are from papers of all sizes and types. They pretty much fit the industry profile in North America. Several publishers of metros completed the survey, as did publishers of mid and small dailies. The largest number of respondents, as you might guess, were from weekly newspapers. That makes sense, because the majority of newspapers are weekly.
A paid newspaper is the primary product of 80 percent of respondents, and 20 percent indicated their primary products were free papers. These were broken down into free newspapers and shoppers. About one-fourth of the free papers classified themselves as shoppers.
In future columns, I plan to break the results down in more detail, by size, type, etc. For this column, I will stick with the overall results.
In general, newspaper advertising revenue seems to have dropped a little, but not much. Advertising revenue has decreased for 44 percent of respondents, with most of those indicating it has decreased “a little, but not drastically.”
Advertising revenue has remained “relatively steady” for 26 percent of respondents during the past three years, while 30 percent report their ad revenue has increased.
During the past year, however, the number who say their ad revenue has decreased is much closer to those who indicate their revenue has increased. It’s almost an even split between decreased, remained steady and increased.
According to 99 percent of respondents, print revenue is the key to profitability, while 9 percent added that although print is the greatest source of revenue, digital sources make up a significant part of their revenue. Ninety percent responded that digital revenue was “negligible.”
It gets a little confusing in the next question. When asked to respond to the statement: “Over the next three years, my newspaper could survive as well without a digital (online) edition,” 70 percent said that was a true statement. Although, in the previous question, only 9 percent indicated they get a significant share of their revenue from digital, 30 percent answered they would lose “a lot of revenue,” if they didn’t have a digital edition. Confusing, but true. I will look into that in more detail in a later column.
There’s no doubt what the major source of revenue is at most newspapers. Without a print edition, 99 percent of respondents said they didn’t believe they could make it. For further emphasis, 82 percent went so far as to answer, “That’s crazy. We’d never make it without a print edition.”
When asked where the most revenue is generated on the digital platform, 21 percent respondents answered “up-selling print ads to our digital side.” Revenue from ads sold on the digital platform only has been the most advantageous for 14 percent of respondents, while another 11 percent answered, “Bundling print and digital subscriptions.” Alternately, 29 percent indicated that they have a digital presence, but do not generate any revenue from it, and 14 percent answered that they do not have a digital presence.
We asked questions related to profitability. Responses from 90 percent of executives indicated that their newspapers are profitable and 55 percent added that they foresee profitability well into the future. Four percent reported record profits during the “past year or two.”
That gives you some indication of the pulse of newspaper executives at the moment. Although I only discussed roughly one-fifth of the survey questions in this brief treatise, I plan to share more in future columns.
How can information like this affect your newspaper? While with a client in Virginia recently, I was asked for thoughts concerning future changes being discussed at his paper. I asked if he would like to look over the results of this survey, which he did.
Afterwards, the publisher told me, “That is so helpful. I think we’ll hold off on some of the changes we were planning.”
More information will come, but I’ve more than used my 800 words for this column. © Kevin Slimp 2015