A Merger We Like  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2006

A Merger We Like   

Integrating print and online operations seems like a smart move. Posted Dec. 13, 2005.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It just makes so much sense.

USA Today's decision to merge its print and online news operations is definitely a step in the right direction.

It's important operationally and it's important symbolically.

Because the print and online newsrooms are in the same business: gathering and disseminating the news.

Everything else is details.

But very significant details. Because it gets clearer every day that if "newspapers" are to survive and thrive, the success of their Web sites is critical. (See "Adding a Price Tag," December/January.)

We're in an odd, transitional period now. Traditional ink-on-paper newspapers are under siege, in case you hadn't heard. You know the litany: their circulation continues to drop; young people ignore them; they're losing readers and classified ads to the Internet; they're perceived as moribund, hopelessly old school; and yet Wall Street insists they generate profits that would embarrass the robber barons.

At the same time, the information these dinosaurs churn out is being consumed as never before. Because when people turn to the Internet for news not airline tickets or blogging or porn, but news they, not surprisingly, frequently turn to mainstream media Web sites. While MSNBC and CNN have much larger online audiences, newspapers do quite well. USAToday.com, for example, had 10,361,000 unique visitors in October, trailing only NYTimes.com (with 11,405,000) among newspaper Web sites. And it isn't just the big national papers: The San Francisco Chronicle's site attracted nearly 4 million unique visitors, the Boston Globe's 3,602,000 and the Houston Chronicle's 2,654,000. (The stats are courtesy of Nielsen//NetRatings.)

There's no surprise here: Only traditional news organizations generate enough money to field the massive staffs it takes to cover the news.

Online advertising is growing, but it will take quite awhile until it reaches the levels needed to pay for all those reporters, not to mention the sky-high margins necessary to make Private Capital Management's Bruce Sherman and his fellow profit-mongers happy.

In the dicey interim period, it makes sense for news organizations to coordinate their forces to get as much bang for the buck as possible.

As USA Today Editor Ken Paulson said, "The goal in combining the two newsrooms is to create a single 24-hour news organization that will inform and engage readers on multiple platforms. That means going beyond arm's-length collaboration. Starting today our goal is to begin conceiving and planning our coverage as one unit, thinking more strategically about the deployment of our newsgathering resources in a world in which news has become an on-demand commodity."

The days when many in the newsroom looked at Web operations with disdain, when newspapers worried about "scooping themselves" online, seem out of another lifetime.

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