Friday, December 19, 2008

Carl Sagan, Where Are You

Much attention was drawn this week to a report by Lauren Rich Fine -- yes, that Lauren Rich Fine, the former leading analyst of newspaper stocks -- on how much Web traffic it would take for news Web sites to survive as Web-only news sites. As Advertising Age reported, "'Based on our research, the conversation [with advertisers] gets interesting at 200 million page views plus a month, but much more so around 800 million,' Ms. Fine writes. Those ambitious numbers, she continues, show how hard it is for local news sites to be really profitable, and underscore 'why local papers will have trouble offsetting traditional media declines' with revenue from their websites."

Yes, these are national news-oriented sites, not the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, so we're not talking about what it would take for a typical American newspaper to survive as a Web-oriented operation; that's problem 1. Yes, her mix was of sites such as the Drudge Report and Daily Kos as well as CNN and Google News. Thus problem 2: What is the definition of a news Web site? Daily Kos does not link to or comment on train wrecks -- well, except for the McCain-Palin campaign. Lauren's definition seems to be "any site that comments or reports on national public affairs."

This is what drew attention, of course: "The report also looks at whether the Times could ever succeed as a web-only product, and concludes that it could -- once starts generating 1.3 billion page views a month. By Ms. Fine's back-of-the-envelope calculations, that kind of traffic would bring in $300 million in quarterly advertising revenues, about what the flagship paper is expected to generate in the fourth quarter."

The story then notes: "The Times' site had 173 million page views in October, according to ComScore Media Metrix."

Yes, that would be 1.1 billion page views short. Billions and billions of views, as Carl Sagan would have said. I know nothing about blogger Randall C. Bennett other than his response:

"Apparently AOL News and Yahoo News get over a billion pageviews. A billion. That’s simply insane. I can’t imagine a billion page views. Not to mention that at that sort of scale, your audience had gotta be largely international, so global brands would only be interested."

By the way, in September 2007, which was not the month before the most-followed election in recent American history but was directly after the end of the pay-for-opinion Times Select program, the Times reported 181 million monthly page views. That would be 8 million more than a year later. That would be problem 3.

"If anyone's positioned to have online [growth] offset pressure on print advertising, it's the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal," said Mike Simonton, a media analyst at Fitch Ratings, to Ad Age. "But they're years behind that pace."

Clearly that 1.1. billion goal is within each reach once we can develop a method of counting every page view 10 times. Perhaps, as with circulation, every page view can be assumed to have 10 passalong readers. "I was in McDonald's and I saw the Times Web page lying on a table, so I read it." That pot of gold is out there, though, and Prester John has it, and once we find him...

But wait, the L.A. Times editor says LAT website revenue now exceeds paper's editorial payroll costs, according to the Romenesko headline. Wow! We're saved. Wait. Russ Stanton actually said: "Stanton said the Times' Web site revenue now exceeds its editorial payroll costs." OK, copy editors: What is the antecedent of "its"? This was posted by David Westphal at the Annenberg School of Communication, who is a careful enough writer that I assume he simply needed a copy editor to make it "Times' Web site's" to show that this is the editorial payroll costs of the Web site of the Los Angeles Times, not the editorial payroll of the Los Angeles Times. Otherwise, of course, you would kill the print Times tomorrow. According to an online staff roster of the Los Angeles Times, this unit consists of 46 people. The total surviving editorial staff of the Los Angeles Times would be somewhere around 650 to 700 people. In other words, the ratio of online staff to total editorial staff in the same order of magnitude as the current page views of the New York Times vs. the number of page views the New York Times would have to have to support the editorial staff of the New York Times.

But that Internet pot of gold... It's out there! El Dorado!


Anonymous said...

Do you honestly need 700 people to cover the city of Los Angeles after you shed those non-core sections of the paper that people can get somewhere else? The LA Times does not need reporters anywhere but LA. Their job is to cover LA news and sports and that's it. They can link to or partner with a newspaper in Sacramento (the Bee) to cover state wide news and news about state government. This would allow the Bee to have a few extra reporters to cover state news. They can link to or partner with a national paper like the USA Today for national news, same with news in other places and world news. The news business is still working on a 20th century model that is wasteful of human resources with too much repetition. Newspapers shouldn't cover pro sports, unless you have a pro sports team in your city. Same with financial news, syndicated columnists, etc. That is all readily available on the internet. The old model is wasteful and full of unneeded duplication. Newspapers must shrink and focus on local news and sports or they will perish. They should be looking at local TV News. Most have a staff of less than 50, not counting tech crew. They cover the same city with a much smaller staff. They stick to local, they don't try to be a daily all-purpose magazine. Of course newspapers don't want to hear that they will probably lose about 80 percent of their staff, but they really don't have much choice.

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