After years of complaining about disruptive forces hammering content, newspapers have finally begun focusing on the real problem, according to local online revenue expert Gordon Borrell. In a wide-ranging email interview about the topic this week, Borrell told me that attention in newspaper front offices has shifted from news content to protecting the one kind of content they have that others don’t. “Newspapers,” he said, “contain the only daily compendium of the Big Sales in a local market, and it’s that franchise that they’re worried about losing — not the local news franchise.”
“They’ve pretty much stopped hand-wringing,” he added, “over companies like Patch infringing on the low-value ‘community news’ turf and have drawn sharp focus on protecting that wildly valuable advertising franchise.”
It’s a good thing, because while the debate has raged about such irrelevant things as whether bloggers are journalists, mixing facts with opinion, hyperlocal news, and personal branding, pureplay Web companies have been decimating the business side of things. Look, the Web didn’t hurt newspapers by taking away their readers; they did so by taking away their money, and I’m happy to see a shift in the numbers this year.
For those of you who still believe it has anything to do with content, here’s an image I put together using data provided by Borrell. Pureplays have been taking local dollars out of the system since the earliest days of the Web, but newspapers were clearly the king. Now look what has happened:
Borrell points to the slight drop in pureplay share and the uptick in newspaper share in 2010 as a sign that newspapers are really beginning to get it.
The big share losses for newspapers were the result of them being lulled into believing they didn’t need to hire extra staffing and that it was all about putting news online and selling ad adjacencies around it. It’s a niche medium where the other half of newspapers’ content — advertising — should be driving the boat. I think they’re well aware of that now, and I think you’re going to see more share growth as a result.
The drop in market share for newspapers has been precipitous during the past five years, and while there are those who would argue that declining circulation is the problem, the reality is that people consuming newspaper content online come close to making up the difference. Moreover, a direct correlation between newspaper circulation and revenue is assumptive, at best, for the only thing we really know for sure is that money has shifted dramatically within the local sphere. Given the realities of companies like Groupon, Facebook, Google and a myriad of others sucking cash from the marketplace, can we really assume that if newspaper circulations were where they used to be that advertising still wouldn’t have moved? I don’t think so.
This is why I’ve been harping so long on the truth that our “business” is actually advertising, not news content. Surrendering the idea that ads adjacent to scarce content is dying is perhaps the hardest thing for newspaper executives to accept, but that’s the reality. Money is money, and the people formerly known as the advertisers are finding highly efficient and effective online methods to spend theirs.
But all is not lost, and Borrell believes the evidence shows a newspaper comeback, of sorts, and he’s optimistic. “Instead of trying to managing everything under one umbrella,” he told me “they’re actually plowing additional resources into the Internet.”
“Their editors or print sales people are less in control,” he added, “allowing their Internet staffs to move more independently and aggressively.”
And, he notes that we shouldn’t forget to examine history, because newspapers can’t be easily written off.
When you look back on any new electronic media — like radio in the 1920s, TV in the 1950s and cable in the 1960s and ‘70s — you see that newspaper companies were among the first to seize the opportunities and make them their own. That’s why you have call letters like WCPO (Cincinnati Post), WBEN (Buffalo Evening Newspaper), and KMST (Minneapolis Star-Tribune). They have a lot at stake, and they leverage themselves into any new business that looks like a threat to their core business. I think you’re going to see newspapers — and perhaps TV stations — basically “own” the local Internet. They have local promotional capabilities to brand a new product, and the feet on the street to develop the content and sell advertising.
That’s a bold statement, and I certainly don’t disagree. The thing that’s different about the Local Web, however, is that it’s ability to generate revenue is outside the mass media box that newspaper companies know so well, and which is also the core business model of radio, television and cable. It’s taken awhile for papers to figure that out, but I agree with Gordon that a shift in the local online market share is at hand.
The Internet is a three-way communications medium. I don’t think anybody has figured out the killer app in terms of enabling commerce, but I’m betting on it happening first at the local level. Will it come from newspapers? I’m not sure, but if it does, it’ll only happen through independent thinkers, those who can separate the making of money from the creation of content.