This is a really interesting article on the newspaper business; how the eyeball model is failing and why a “subscription consortium” could be a positive development if Congress changes the antitrust laws that likely restrict newspapers from enabling this now.
Harder to foresee was the emergence of a painful paradox: Newspapers’ revenues have shrunk even as their audience has grown, because online-ad revenue does not come close to replacing print-ad revenue. Exactly why is not perfectly clear, but one reason is that only some newspaper advertising has moved to newspaper websites, with the rest shifting to such online upstarts as Google and Craigslist. Another reason is that readers seem to perceive print ads as information but Web ads as distractions, and so ad rates are much lower online than in print.
[From National Journal Magazine – How to Save Newspapers–and Why]
Before tackling the subscription concept, I do wish to take issue with Rauch’s suggestion that it is not “perfectly clear” why online advertising is failing to bridge the gap for newspapers with declining print distribution. While not “perfectly clear” it may fall into the rather obvious category that online advertising is more transparent than print and thus is less likely to benefit publishers through inefficiency. In other words, even CPM based display ads are performance based in that the advertiser pays for exactly what is delivered, not what is reported to be delivered.
Newspaper advertising is not monolithic either, there are classifieds, business card ads, information ads, sale ads, coupons, and spotlight ads. Of all these categories it is classifieds that have most certainly been negatively impacted by Craigslist et. al. For the other ad variants there is a good analog to online display ads but it’s not entirely clear that newspaper ad sales groups understand how to sell online ads, but having said that it is also true that coupons are far different from spotlight ads.
Perhaps the real problem that the newspaper business has is not a lack of options but a lack of imagination. Why is it that the best newspapers can do is interstitial and display ads?
There is one problem that newspapers face which is difficult to overcome and that is the fact that newspaper advertising is predominately local whereas online the boundaries presented by geography simply don’t apply. If I am placing ads for an automotive dealership and SFGate’s numbers present a picture that suggests only half of the online audience is within the 5 Bay Area counties that I care about then the consequence of that is that their ad rates are only worth half of the rate card to me.
This only serves to illustrate the weakness that display ads have online… if your .46% click through rate is now no better than .23, the 1:30 ratio of people who click on an ad to buy a car now causes a chain reaction that results in having to display the ad 12,000 times to get a lead across the finish line. What this means is that the CPM rate is worth about $8.30 to me if my competitive marketing costs are $100 per car buyer, and this is a success story! If my RPM (collective CPM to a page) is $25 on average, I have to generate 10 million pageviews just to generate $250k in revenue.
Rauch presents an interesting concept of a consortium subscription but here’s why it won’t work. News is fungible and with the explosion of news sources that are available online it is unlikely that newspapers as represented online today could justify a subscription cost on the basis of unique reporting alone. Even a meaningful consortium of newspapers would have a hard time sustaining this concept.
This is because newspapers by and large have taken a chainsaw to news gathering operations and as a result do very little in the way of unique local coverage. Cable news in particular has been aggressive about picking up alternative forms of local coverage and are ramping up initiatives to collect user submitted videos in particular, all of which further threatens the newspaper model of journalism.
Newspapers can, I believe, succeed online but they will need to broaden their reach and deepen the portfolio of advertising products they offer. As advertisers demand more precise targeting and yield the newspapers will have to respond with much better targeting and probably something like technographics that predict how different audience groups engage brands and online media.
As I have written before, I don’t think that newspaper executives are stupid or incapable of understanding what is happening to their collective industry. I do believe that smart people fall into a trap of viewing something different as simply an extension of what they have already been doing, and as such tend to be incremental in their innovations. Journalism is not broken, nor is the notion of print newspapers, but what is clear is that simply doing online what you were doing offline isn’t working and no amount of volume will make it up. If The Huffington Post can do as well as the rumor numbers have them doing, then the Washington Post can as well.
Lastly, the title of this post is something I played around with while thinking about television advertising for products that promise weight loss without any work. Eat all you want and shed the pounds! Of course they don’t work because losing weight is a simple equation about burning more calories than you are taking in (lot’s of factors, but in a nutshell this is it). The newspaper industry isn’t going to be able to save itself without some serious work to remake the culture of the newspaper business, deal with the costs of their unionized print operations, and optimize what is a generally expensive and low yield news operations. Nothing is free, same goes here.