Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where It's Not At

This month I was on a panel at Temple University on finding journalism jobs. The moderator started things by asking where the students got their news -- well, actually he said something like, "You get your news online, don't you?" No student is going to contest that, given that introduction. But where did they get their news? CNN. MSNBC. BBC. New York Times.

Not sources that provide a lot of news about Temple University or Philadelphia. But then, "news" means the front pages of the New York Times until proven otherwise. Somali pirates, presidential dogs, economic crises. Robert Picard, in his perceptive looks at the actual economic situation of the news business, would be willing to pay for this sort of news, but decries what is actually offered. I can just imagine what those Temple students, let alone Picard, will do with this story on today's front page of my county daily. "Potato Yields Image of Cross" may not make it to the BBC. Most longtime journalists would tell you that this story of God's apparently placing a sign inside a potato to restore a beleaguered woman's faith will be the best-read thing in today's paper. Will it? If the paper had a most-read or most-e-mailed ... but even then, do we know if it was the most-read thing in the paper, which has a different readership than the paper online? What I do know is that most journalists would find this story probably one step away from the NBC ad on the front of the Los Angeles Times. Both assault their dignity.

I don't think I can gracefully segue from that to Martin Langeveld's analysis of online newspaper readership, so I won't. Langeveld is a sober-minded proponent of online journalism; he sees a future and pronounces it good, but not heavenly. I'm not sure I follow every bit of his analysis or agree with it down to the last jot and tittle, but the headline -- "Print is still king: Only 3 percent of newspaper reading happens online" -- tucks in nicely with the recent U.S. and Canadian statistics, quoted here earlier, showing that the online-only audience for newspapers was about 4 percent in each nation (2 percent in Australia), with an additional percentage of, oh, 10 to 20 percent, depending on the market, who read the print paper and also used the online version of it -- for updates, for e-mailing stories, for reading at work stories they didn't have time to read at home, whatever.

Langeveld's analysis does not turn him back to print as the answer, of course; he's been calling for an online-led news operation with a print product 2 or 3 days a week, and one analysis is not going to change his mind. And he makes a case for why he should not -- given the changes in advertising, as he sadly notes, "Not only is online revenue alone insufficient to sustain news operations, but the print operations of our larger newspapers, having lost most monopoly pricing power, are not sustainable either, recession or no recession."

(By the way -- another graceless segue here -- Langeveld, in a response to postings, says: "I’ll continue to disagree with those who say in effect, 'I don’t see any newspapers being read by two or more people, therefore it doesn’t happen.'" His conclusion is based on Scarborough data and points out a vital difference between print and online readership, one that any editor who has re-sectionalized the paper in recent months knows well and one that shows the "the world is me" myopia that afflicts many people online. Online readership is one person at the computer. Much of print readership is the husband and wife, or other domestic partners, sharing the paper. So, yes, in many cases two people read each copy of the paper. They live together. Two people rarely read a Web page together. Go back to your oar, solitary man.)

But now we do segue back to Picard, who, in discussing Twitter, notes: "Journalists and technology writers are enamored with communications technology and tend to portray successful technologies as representing large-scale trends. We are regularly presented with news stories and promotional materials about the rise of new technologies and about how their uses create social trends that are significantly altering society. ... The impression given by coverage is that anyone who doesn’t have an iPhone or Blackberry and anyone who doesn’t Twitter is out of touch with the mainstream and being left out of modern society. ... iPhones represents about 1 percent of mobile phone users. The number of Twitter users is currently around 1 million, representing only about 3 tenths of 1 percent of the US population." (That number may now be higher as Twitter has its CB Radio moment.)

This is 2009. Comparing online to TV is probably a fool's game, but I'm a fool. TV first started really emerging in 1946. (Think of this as newspapers trying to use channels on America Online.) My home town, one of America's 25 largest cities at the time, got television in 1949. (Nando Times and Hot Cocoa.) Uncle Miltie premiered in 1948; to quote Wikipedia, "the number of TV sets sold during Berle's run on the show was said to have grown from 500,000 his first year on the tube to over 30 million when the show ended in 1956." (Oh, the middle of this is, what, Real Cities?) In terms of comparing the growth of online and TV, this is the 1959-60 season; the peacock is blooming, "Bonanza" has just come on, and kinescopes are no longer being used, though you still see them sometimes to fill time at 3 in the afternoon. Television is far, far, far from what it will become, there are three networks, no PBS, no HBO, but it is no longer a baby either. People have fully incorporated it in their lives, except in rural areas where you can't get a signal (and even then, cable is coming, having been created in 1948 in Mahanoy City, Pa.).

So here in 2009, in the online equivalent of the 1959-60 TV season (other debuts are "77 Sunset Strip," "The Donna Reed Show" and "Naked City," so we're moving out of the Paddy Chayefsky Golden Age and into the era of the three-network mass-programming model that prevailed for decades), online is arguably 3 percent of newspapers' total readership, about 4 percent of people in a week use a newspaper site online only, and in a month, the typical online user in the U.S. views 2,405 Web pages, and 166 million people, or, what, half the population of the U.S., is listed as in the "active digital medla universe."

The point is not that some plateau has been reached; comparing 3-network TV in 1960 with 400-channel TV in 2009 shows what can happen. But digital is not a startup medium with crystal sets. People have incorporated it into their lives. And the future in which U.S. newspapers were going to simply move their pre-digital reach, influence, readership and advertising online hasn't happened and isn't going to happen, now or ever. That ship has sailed, and we are in steerage, if not simply packed in the hold. Newspapers (at least the 1,300 of them that are not the New York Times or USA Today) will be a small and not particularly dynamic niche in the online universe, and when students are asked where they go to get "news," they will probably say CNN or MSNBC.

So to close, read this story by Nicholas Carlson in "Silicon Valley Insider," called "Maybe Newspapers Don't Belong Online." Carlson makes a point made here earlier -- that whatever journalists' core competency may be, "manufacturing newspapers is the newspaper companies' core competency; solving the online advertising problem is not."

And he goes back to that famous Ur-text-f0r-all-innovators, "Marketing Myopia":

"The conventional wisdom is that all media companies need to figure out how to take their business model and transform it to the web – Almost all of them have heeded the late Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt’s famous lesson of what killed the railroads: 'They thought they were in the railroad business, not the transportation business.' But after ten years of following Levitt’s advice, it’s not at all clear that the traditional media model works on the web.
There is also the possibility that the web will not be a place where content will create sources to be viable on the web. value. In fact, there’s just one unfortunate thing about Levitt’s compelling mantra about railroads and the transportation business.

"It’s wrong.

"Transportation may have been a wonderful business on rails and sea, but it has proven a dreadful business in the air. Even today, the market cap of Burlington Northern is $22 Billion; the market cap of Carnival Cruise is $14 Billion while the market cap of American Airlines is less than $1.5 Billion. The railroads may have done many things wrong, but avoiding the airline business was not one of them."

How and where can we make money?
Where is the best use of our resources?
Where are readers and advertisers willing to pay us for being there?
How do we sustain ventures that actually make money?
How do we determine where we are throwing good money after bad?
How do we focus on reality instead of overoptimising the future, while still not closing our eyes to opportunities?

These are not just the questions for newspapers. These are the questions for journalists, whether their aim is to revive their print newspapers or create successful online news sites or seek foundation support.

But we need to say that asking the question "how can we support and revitalize printed newspapers" does not simply brand you as a retrograde caveman but is in 2009 perhaps the most important question. It is not the only question. The 4 percent has its future and its own opportunities as well, but in 1959-60, "Stereo Action Unlimited" with totally separated left and right tracks was the next great thing. Some will always want the next thing and some will want to read about crosses in potatoes. Let's do something that works.

(Addendum: The always-on-point Alan Mutter notes here that newspapers' Web revenue is continuing to crater just like print. He might say that the most important question is, how can publishers come up with creative online sites that will draw ad revenue, given the secular trends against print ads? The challenge, he notes, "is for them to develop web and mobile venues that are less like newspapers and more like the interactive, viral and fun environments operated by their competitors." My own feeling is that newspaper companies, by their nature, have trouble with "viral" and are genetically predisposed against "fun," and that this might be a harder task than figuring out how to reposition print. But we would both agree, I think, that the idea of "publishing our newspapers on the Web" as the gate to the promised land is over and that the revival of the newspaper business depends on everyone recognizing this.)


Anonymous said...

I may be a statistical freak surrounded by statistical freaks, but - and this is not counting e-mails, social media sharing or otherwise linking to something - my fiancee and I browse the Web together nightly.

I'd say 90% of my spare-time Web browsing is with her, actually. News stories, shopping, videos, games, all together on her laptop while we watch TV or eat dinner for an hour or two a night.

This is something I've seen universally among married and cohabitating friends - entertainment on TV, news and commerce on a laptop, and a very frequent call of "hey honey, look at this."

So I’ll continue to disagree with those who say in effect, "I don’t see any Web sites being read by two or more people, therefore it rarely happens," at least until somebody does the equivalent research - equivalently thorough and frequently updated - into online reading habits.

More simply: It's not that couples and families read newspapers together, it's that couples and families do lots of things together - reading Web sites together is far less of a stretch than you make it sound.

Davisull said...

GG: You're absolutely right. Saying people don't browse the Web together is just as dismissive as saying people don't read the paper together.