Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I'd Take 20 Percent

A Los Angeles Times posting looks at figures on what news consumers would do if confronted with a paywall, and sees, of course, death.

The American Press Institute-Belden study, as Jon Healey's posting notes, "exposed a gap between the industry's sense of its content's value and the public's perception. Hmm, 'gap' isn't exactly the right word. Make that 'yawning chasm.'" And in that he's right. "The comparison revealed that news execs believed their stories were more valuable and harder to replace than readers did. For example, 52% of the readers surveyed said it would be somewhat easy or very easy to find a substitute for the online content that news industry websites were providing; 68% of the executives said the opposite."

But he inserts a table and says, "It shows just how slim the chances are that readers who can no longer find the content they want on a newspaper's website will migrate to the paper's print edition." Indeed it shows that for 67 percent of them, one place they would go would be to -- other Web sites. (The table must show all the places they said they would go, but ranking them in order.) But it also shows that for 30 percent, they would go to "their print newspaper," and 12 percent would go to "another newspaper," not another newspaper's Web site.

Gee, does that mean that 42 percent said that among the places they would go would be a print newspaper? I may be completely off base; I'm a journalist and can't do the math. And that indeed is far from what industry leaders think would happen. But a "slim chance" would be, 5 or 10 percent. Let's say that of that 42 percent, only 21 percent returned to a print newspaper or used it more -- that half of that number is already heavy print users. What could the newspaper business do with 21 percent more usage of its most economically lucrative product?

Yes, thinking as people in the newspaper business did -- that with pay walls, 75 percent of readers would go back to print -- is pretty unrealistic. If you're now getting sports agate from ESPN, as Warren Buffett apparently is, you're not going to go back to the Omaha World-Herald just to get the sports agate. But 20 percent is something. 10 percent would be something. 40 percent would be something. Saying "the predominant mode of communication is now Internet-based" is not the same as "there will be no further demand for print." Unless you're already in the camp of "I have no further demand for print," in which case you and all the other cool kids can laugh at the poor backward printies. Personally, given the disparity between print and online ad revenue, this is a deal I would take.

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