Abramson faces toughest test of any NYT boss
She either will have to cannibalize the flagship print product to build the strongest possible digital franchise for the Times – OR – she will have to concentrate on sustaining the commercial strength of the print edition at the risk of channeling insufficient resources into assuring the strongest possible digital future for America’s newspaper of record.
Although it would be nice to have it both ways, that is not going to be possible in a time that resources are unlikely to increase – and, in the worst case, could shrink – at the most well-endowed newsroom in the land, where the editorial payroll tops 1,000 individuals.
The problem for Abramson is that the print and digital media demand significantly differentiated products, which the Times has not been able to produce to date with even its enviable strength. While the Times is formidably staffed to produce its estimable print edition, its digital business has not gotten the same resources and attention as the print product.
If the Times is to be as powerful a digital force in the future as it historically has been in print, it is going to have to create a plethora of highly differentiated and optimized web, mobile and social products that go beyond the current mission of previewing or recycling what appears in print, because there’s no reason to buy the print edition if you subscribe to any of its digital feeds. Further, as detailed in a moment, there’s reason to wonder about how many people will be willing to pay for its digital products.
If the existing editorial staff is cleaved to put more resources into creating highly optimized digital media, then the print report necessarily will suffer. If the paper continues concentrating on print, it likely will be out-maneuvered by digital competitors who are 100% focused on being successful in those media – and completely unabashed about aggregating content from the Times to achieve their goals, as Abramson’s predecessor, Bill Keller, noted in a widely discussed column earlier this year that oxpecked the Huffington Post for overzealous pursuit of the practice.
If unfavorable economic circumstances force cuts in the Times newsroom that are anything like those suffered at almost every other paper in the land (including its parent company’s publications in New England, the Southeast and California), the choices that Abramson faces will be starker – and more painful. But, make no mistake: The dilemma will persist even if Abramson keeps the cost-cutters at bay.
Abramson’s situation is not unlike that facing most publishers, who, on average, derive 90% of their revenues from the circulation and advertising sold in connection with their flagship print products. (The public affairs department at the NYT company failed to reply to calls and emails seeking the precise percentage of digital revenues at the Times but a bit of reverse engineering of the company’s financial statements finds that its entire publishing division derived 10.3% of its revenues from digital media in the second quarter of this year.)
With most demographic and commercial trends suggesting that print readership and advertising revenues will continue to decline as the Boomer generation rides into the sunset, newspapers today rely on the print product not only to keep the lights on but also to fund the innovation they hope will successfully transition their franchises to an increasingly digi-centric world.
But the stakes in this balancing act are higher for the NYT than most publishers because the growing success of its digital product – it is the top pure-play news site in ComScore rankings – could cut deeply into the sale of the print version of the national edition that is responsible for some 60% of the newspaper’s circulation.
The most recent audits show that total average circ for the Times is 916,911 on weekdays and 1.3 million on Sunday, meaning that 550,000 daily subscribers and 780,000 Sunday readers live out here in the hinterlands where it costs nearly $1,000 a year to buy the national print edition of the Times.
It’s a fair bet that the people who faithfully read the national print edition of the Times are not only thoughtful and wealthy but also increasingly comfortable with consuming news on such devices as computers, smart phones and iPads.
The more they doodle with the various digital incarnations of the Times, the faster the national readers will realize that nearly the all the news that fits in print is not only immediately at hand in pixels but also available before the presses even start to roll.
Out here on the Left Coast, I scan the stories in the next day’s NYT on my iPhone before I go to sleep. When I fish the fish-wrap edition out of the blue baggie on my doorstep in the morning, the news looks awfully old to me. Like most modern individuals who care about what’s happening in the world, I check NYTimes.Com and other sites throughout the day to catch up on the news.
So, why spend $1,015.56 a year for the print edition at full cover price plus 8.5% sales tax in San Francisco, when you can get the all-you-can-eat digital package for $455 a year?
Or, you can do what my 72-year-old brother in law does in Michigan. A distinguished and erudite lawyer who retired a few years ago as the head of a major Chicago firm, the first thing he used to do every morning – rain, sleet or snow be damned – was jump in his car to buy the New York Times.
Even though he managed to avoid using Dictaphones, Selectric typewriters, PCs and cell phones throughout his career, he got a Nook about a year ago, which he now uses for everything from reading books to surfing the web to doing Sudoku.
“I don’t have to buy the Times any more,” he says. “You can read 20 articles a month for free on their website and catch up with summaries of the rest on Huffington Post.”
If the New York Times could lose him as a paying customer, it could lose anyone.
That’s the challenge Abramson faces in her new job.