Newspapers’ winning formula: Good content + technology
By Marc Wilson
Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from News and Tech, September 2010.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take up arms against a sea of troubles,
And by changing end them?
First, my apologies to Bill (sic) Shakespeare for mangling his poetry.
Next, the rest of my soliloquy about paywalls, registration, metered content, online advertising and generating and protecting good local content. First, the industry’s “outrageous fortune.”
Advertising Age recently reported that while newspaper websites reach more than one-third of all U.S. Web users, the industry’s share of digital advertising revenues is much smaller than that – and declining.
The magazine quotes PricewaterhouseCoopers as reporting that newspapers’ share of digital ad revenue has fallen from 16.2 percent in 2007 to 11.4 percent in 2009. By 2014, the magazine said, that share is expected to decline even further, to 7.9 percent.
Yet advertisers still trust newspapers, Advertising Age said. “Advertisers trust newspapers to provide safe, sober environments for their brands and ... marketers want newspapers’ authority to rub off on their ads.”
At the same time, the CPM gap between newspaper and non-newspaper news sites continues to close, another troubling development. According to ComScore, newspaper cost-per thousand ad rates in April totaled $6.99, compared with an overall average of $2.52. But non-newspaper news sites – Yahoo News, MSNBC.com and Examiner.com – are closing fast, with an average CPM of $6.14, ComScore said.
Taking from others
Aggregators — led by Google but followed by many others (such as Topix and Fwix) — became players simply by indexing news generated by others, mostly newspapers. So, many of us in the industry are looking at solutions designed to help newspapers retain their competitive advantage online. Among developments:
- A key effort is to understand and block aggregators from using content generated by newspapers from being used by aggregators to compete with newspapers. At TownNews.com, we work hard – in coordination with newspapers – to identify and block aggregators who pirate content from newspaper websites. This is an ongoing project with moving targets. U.S. copyright law is a potential ally in this fight.
- Registration tools are being implemented for many reasons. Registration information potentially helps newspapers sell more (and higher-priced) targeted advertising. Registration also helps curb abusive language used by consumers commenting on news stories. And, registration can generate lead lists that can help the newspaper target potential customers for subscription products.
- Paywalls are being used in hopes of growing circulation revenue. For some 250 years, newspapers have been funded by a combination of advertising and circulation revenue, and paywalls are an effort to restore that formula. Paywalls are also being used to protect traditional print circulation revenue.
- Metering is being tested (and implemented) at online newspapers around the world. Metering allows newspapers to permit readers to access a limited number of stories (or page views) before a registration form or a paywall appears. TownNews.com is one of several companies that have developed this technology, but we openly admit that tech-savvy folks can trick the registration or bypass paywalls. (This is true of all the technology we know about.) Still, we think the technology is worth pursuing.
Technology is secondary to content. Media critic Ari Rosenberg contends that “great content should be purchased. Inferior content should be voted off the island.” For many years, newspapers made a fortune in advertising and circulation based on content produced by others (and delivered by wire services). That content is largely inferior, and is getting voted off the island. During the current Great Recession, newspapers slashed their newsrooms and hurt their best asset, good local content. Rosenberg put it this way: “By lowering the level of commitment required online, publishers lowered their own value.”
I spent 14 years as editor/publisher/janitor of a weekly newspaper. We had a loyal, even dedicated readership that willingly (and some even eagerly) bought subscriptions because they wanted a good newspaper covering their community.
Take up arms
Weekly newspapers, I believe, have a higher level of loyalty from their readers because the weeklies produce all local content (as compared to dailies that filled their news columns with wire copy.) Readers will support (and even pay money) for good community news coverage. Most people understand that there is no such thing as
a free lunch. If newspapers – print and online – produce great (mostly local) content, they can charge readers and advertisers. If newspapers continue to, as Rosenberg said, “lower their own value,” no amount of technology can save them.
Now is the time to “take up arms against a sea of troubles.” That means producing better products, which readers and advertisers will respect and support.
To not change? Let’s let Shakespeare chime in: “Makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fl y to others that we know not of.”
Marc Wilson is the general manager of TownNews.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (309) 743-0816.
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