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exploring how the world works and why it works that way …

It’s about the content … really

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Earlier this week, I cheekily posted a story that the Wall Street Journal had decided to put ads on its front page. Jabber and seeking4sophia took issues with that and, in essence, asked for an alternative. My reply is after the LJ cut.

Asked sophia: So you’re saying, instead of putting an ad on a front page that people are picking up less and less, WSJ should turn to other means of driving revenue? It DOES seem like kind of a backward move. What do you suggest?

I hate it when you make me think. It makes my head hurt. But here goes — beginning with a different medium:

This spring, the traditional business model of television, particularly network television, died. As we know, the nets and the cable channels have charged advertisers based on Nielsen ratings estimates of how many people watch programs. So every spring, the nets – and later the cables – conducted an overblown, over-the-top combination of show previews and auction called the “upfront” market. The nets and the cables would try to get top dollar for advertising time for ads to run beginning in the fall season. (Leftover time would be sold piecemeal later in the “scatter” market.)

Times (and how audiences consume media) change. In television, first came the remote. People skipped ads. Then came the VCR. And the DVR. And now iTunes, where folks can download programming at their leisure. Over the decades, one technological mindset has sought to ensure ads are seen; another has sought to avoid seeing ads at all.

It’s not surprising then, that advertisers, under their own financial pressures to perform, are unhappy with the audience measurement system. It’s a statistical guess based on a small sample. So advertisers want better, verifiable data that their ads are viewed. (Note the Google model: Advertisers pay upon click-throughs. In some models, advertisers pay on the basis of click-through and a purchase.) Now Nielsen is working on systems that rate the viewership of ads as well as programs.

Advertisers want certifiable ROI – return on investment. They will no longer accept statistical guesswork.

That means the traditional upfront is dead. New media are drawing ad dollars away – because, like print news, the traditional audience is declining and new media habits are forming in non-traditional audiences.

The traditional business model of print news is, in a word, busted, too. It relies on circulation: How many people see the ad? With circulation declining, that rubric is as dead as a doornail.

In both television and print news, the reaction has been identical: Squeeze more income out of the traditional system. Find cleverer ways of demonstrating to advertisers that ads are actually seen and acted upon. Print’s reaction differs slightly; it seeks to “package” ads across print, online and, for those who have them, broadcast partnerships. But it’s still the same game.

In print, if ad revenue declines, profit declines. As we’ve seen, the short-term profit pressures of Wall Street lead to cutting expenses to maintain – and even increase – profits.

So the WSJ runs ads in a strip across the bottom of the page. Too little, too late.

But in both the case of television and print news, one subject seems to be so taboo that we must not speak of it – the quality of the content.

As sirpaulsbuddy wrote this week, television programming has gone from the ridiculous to the more ridiculous (my words, not his). A decade of reality shows (which are inexpensive to produce and thus profitable) have left us few really good shows. (Hell, I’m reduced to watching C-SPAN.)

Revenue controls (read job cuts) in the print news industry have similarly reduced the quantity of quality journalism. The Chicago Tribune just keeps on cutting jobs and – gasp! – closing foreign bureaus.

There is quality in print news, but it needs to be carefully hunted down.

Newspapers are weighing lots of other (bad) choices these days.

So what’s the point?

Attempts to squeeze profits out of an inferior product are doomed to fail. Both television and print news need to invest in their products. If television will tell me a good story, I’ll watch. If journalism will tell me a good story, I’ll read.

Phil Meyer, a journalism thinker at UNC-Chapel Hill, says so, too. He’s argued for years that good journalism is profitable. And it has to be: After all, journalism, as jabber has pointed out, is a business.

And William Powers, critic for the National Journal, thinks news – and truth – can be a really worthwhile product.

Amid that thinking, however, are some disturbing trends. The “new” thinking for the print business model involves “marketing.” Instead of staff cuts (hell, there ain’t no fat left to cut), the thinkers say all that’s needed is “marketing” the product to “improve the brand.” For example, Dow Jones has undertaken a news strategy project that would “leverage all of our resources to maximize our competitive advantage in this rapidly changing environment.” Gosh, that sounds like code for “marketing.”

Even the alums and faculty at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism are nervous because the new dean has written of the fields of journalism and marketing overlapping.

Keep on reading Romenesko, and you’ll see newspaper execs adding marketing positions to “consult” with newsroom editors on story selection and such.

The print world is awash in complexity and confusion. Institutional stockholders are forcing chains to break up, saying they’re worth more as pieces than as a whole. Witness the break-up of Knight Ridder.

But my answer always returns to content. If you improve it, people will come. And the print news business will make oodles of money.

(We’ll leave for another time the discussion of what constitutes improvement.)


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

July 21, 2006 at 5:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I don’t know how much money it would save, but what if the industry turned away from the broadsheet format? Many of the papers in Great Britain have already made the transfer over to tabloid or Berliner. If newspapers’ two biggest costs are people and paper, why focus solely on people?


    July 22, 2006 at 12:45 pm

    • The answer is attitude. The American perception is that tabloids are sleazy. To save newsprint, American papers are shrinking the width of their broadsheets — from traditional maximums approached 23 inches to less than 19 in some case. All the biggies have shrunk that way — USAToday, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and so on. That does save a bunch of bucks — but it also shrinks the newshole. Newspaper execs don’t talk about that.
      Please see my earlier post at:
      But tabloids are gaining a small foothold here in the USA. See this piece from Poynter:
      As for the focus on people instead of paper: You don’t have to pay paper health benefits, 401-ks and (decreasingly) retirement bennies.
      Thanks for your comment. It advances the discussion.

      Dr. Denny

      July 22, 2006 at 3:37 pm

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