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Think Big. Move Fast.

Walter E. Hussman Jr., the Publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (the major paper in Little Rock), wrote a fascinating opinion column in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) entitled “How to Sink a Newspaper“. He take a contrarian view to the prevailing trend for newspapers to embrace the web and make their content free to drive more online users. Indeed the Newspaper Association of America recently released a report saying that newspaper websites are growing twice as fast as other websites.

Instead, Hussman defends his paper’s practice of keeping the majority of his content behind a pay wall. Because the article require a subscription, let me excerpt a few key passages:

One has to wonder how many of the newspaper industry’s current problems are self-inflicted. Take free news. News has become ubiquitous, free, and as a result, a commodity. Anytime you are trying to sell something that becomes a commodity, you have lost much of the value in providing that product or service….

All of this would be fine if newspapers generated lots of additional revenues from offering free news. But the fact is newspapers generate most of their online revenues from classified advertising, not from news….

It turns out that a Web site is a very different medium from a newspaper. While consumers often find pop-up ads a distraction and banner ads as more clutter, readers often seek out the advertising in newspapers….

Our newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, does not offer our news for free on the Web site. We offer free headlines. On a few selected stories, we offer a few free paragraphs, designed to get people to read our paper. We also offer free classifieds…

So what are we doing with our Web site? We have hired a videographer to complement our text coverage in the newspaper. We have added photo galleries to increase the number of photographs beyond what we can publish. We offer an electronic edition where you can search the entire edition by keywords, something you can’t do in the print edition. And we offer breaking news email alerts, something else you can’t do in print. In other words, we are offering value on our Web site that complements, rather than cannibalizes, our print edition.

Collectively, the American newspaper industry spends $7 billion on news and editorial operations. This includes everything from copy editor salaries to sports travel expenses. In addition, the Associated Press spent about $600 million world-wide in editing and creating news. By offering this news for free, and selling it to aggregators like Google, Yahoo and MSN for a small fraction of what it costs to create it, newspaper readership and circulation have declined.

…it is not just the newspaper industry that gets hurt. Journalism will be diminished in America with less investigative and enterprise reporting; indeed, less reporting of state houses, city halls, school boards, business and sports. Clearly a lot is at stake.

It is time for newspapers to reconsider the ultimate costs and consequences of free news.

Hussman provides some data to back up his contentions, citing growth in his newspaper’s paid circulation against industry wide declines, and showing relatively better performance than the Columbus Dispatch (a comparable paper) in the 6 months after the Dispatch switched their website from free to pay.

Before reflexively dismissing Hussman as an old media dinosaur that “just doesn’t get it”, its worth while considering another newspaper transaction that is in the public eye, News Corps bid for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. Since Murdoch bought MySpace, a move that earned him first ridicule, then praise, it is hard to accuse him of being an old media dinosaur. And as Hussman points out about the WSJ online, it has almost one million paying subscribers, more than all but three US newspapers (USA Today, WSJ and NY Times). Even the opinion piece that I’m quoting can’t be read unless you’re one of these one million!

Hussman gets to the core of an important point, but I disagree with him on the nuances. I don’t think that news has become a commodity because newspapers make it free. Rather, I think that news is free because its a commodity. In a world of wire news, where you read the story hardly matters. For most breaking news, a rewrite of a wire story by a staff reporter is not enough to differentiate one newspaper from another. One could argue that the wires shouldn’t sell to outlets other than newspapers, but that cat is well and truly out of the bag.

The important thing that allows papers like the WSJ, and like the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, to continue to charge for subscription is that the content that they have is NOT a commodity. The journal covers business news to a depth and breadth that no other US paper does. It adds insight and analysis. What you read in the journal you often CAN’T read elsewhere. Similarly, I imagine that readers/subscribers of the Democrat-Gazette online are not turning to it for news on Iraq or the election, or topics that are well covered elsewhere, but rather news about local issues in Little Rock and in Arkansas that are NOT covered elsewhere. Its the local paper’s coverage of local news that allows it to hold its audience – not its coverage of commodity news.

What this gets to is one of the core premises of business – find your unfair advantage. For now, the Journal and the Democrat-Gazette have an unfair advantage; for the former in the coverage and analysis of business news, and for the later in coverage and analysis of Arkansas news. One could argue that over time these too could come under threat from bloggers both national and local, but for now their news is worth a premium. (As an interesting aside, the free daily BostonNow is now including some local bloggers in its print edition.)

The advice I would give to Huffman would be to take all the rest of his content, the commodity news (International, National, Business etc) and put that outside the pay wall and see what happens. He might be pleasantly surprised.

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