A shock video to keep news execs up at night
The high cost of creating original editorial content for newspapers “is not sustainable,” said Publisher No. 2. “I don’t know if it will blow up the industry this year or next year…but if you don’t have the cost of content dramatically lower, then you can’t compete” with the digital media.
Believe it or not, those incendiary remarks opened the annual convention last weekend of the Newspaper Association of America in Dallas. And, for reasons discussed in a moment, those comments are bound to cause many a sleepless night in the coming weeks for editors and publishers alike.
But, first, meet the outspoken speakers who disrupted the normally staid event (and whose extraordinary comments are documented in the second video on this page at the NAA website):
:: Publisher No. 1 is John Paton, the chief executive who in less than two years has taken Journal Register Co. from bankruptcy to what he says was a profit of $41 million in 2010. The company is doing so well at its low-cost, digital-first publishing strategy that every employee got an extra week of pay earlier this month.
:: Publisher No. 2 is Clark G. Gilbert, the CEO of Deseret News and Digital Media Co., who axed 43% of the news staff of his Deseret News in Salt Lake City, merged it with a local television station owned by his parent company and started an independent digital division that he says is on track this year to sell more advertising than its legacy media counterparts.
Chief among his achievements, said Gilbert on the video, is that he halved the cost of producing content for his properties by not only cutting the news staff but also by filling his web pages with low-cost articles produced by 1,000 part-time contributors and material aggregated from other sites.
Gilbert said his company had no choice but to slash content costs if it hoped to compete with the digital competitors who are siphoning readers and advertisers away from expensively produced print newspapers. “We are facing the realities that the economics of print journalism have fundamentally changed” with the loss of nearly half of industry revenues in the last five years, said Gilbert. “If newspaper companies can’t face that, you can’t do [the digital initiatives] we are talking about.”
A former Harvard business professor, Gilbert said the 1,200 journalists at the New York Times represent a staff that is roughly 10 times the size of the newsroom of the Huffington Post, even though their websites have nearly the same traffic at respectively 14 million and 13 million unique visitors per month. (The New York Times, of course, sells nearly 1 million newspapers a day filled with advertising, while HuffPo sells none.)
“I was shocked at how many people can run a business where they don’t know what their core product costs to produce,” said Gilbert. Though Gilbert does not go into specifics on the video, industry sources say he calculated his content cost prior to the layoffs at an average of $227 per story, as compared with $10 for articles at Demand Media or zero for the 9,000 bloggers who contribute to the Huffington Post. Competitors, he concluded on the video, are “putting out content at an order of magnitude less than the newspaper industry.”
At Journal Register, Paton agrees that newspapers are overpaying for journalism. “The crowd creates more content than we do,” he said on the video. “You have to harness them.”
Saying publishers should “disrupt your own business model” by de-emphasizing print and putting the web first, Paton recommends taking on not only editorial costs but also the costs of anything – from ad makeup to technology – that can be outsourced for less. In so doing, he said, he cut a $25 million capital budget in half.
If the dollars earned through print advertising turn into dimes on the web, so be it, said Paton. “Just start stacking dimes.”
This hard-core, hard-nosed call for aggressive change is bound to keep editors and publishers up at night, worrying about these two questions:
:: If Paton is wrong in urging publishers to de-emphasize print in favor of the digital media, then publishers who follow him will be screwed. Remember: Print advertising and circulation today deliver some 80% to 90% of the revenues at the typical newspaper.
:: If Gilbert is wrong when he says investing in tons of staff-produced content is a mistake, then publishers who join him will be screwed. Remember: Authoritative and compelling local content historically has been a key competitive strength for newspapers.
Paton and Gilbert are right that the media business has changed profoundly since widespread consumer adoption to the web began in 1995. They also are right that newspapers have to change the way they do business in order to stay in business. But change is scary. And picking the right path is scarier.
If you watch the video from the NAA – which I urge you to do – you’ll probably have your share of nightmares, too.