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 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    

From AJR,   June/July 2009  issue

Stopping the Presses   

Maybe it’s time for newspapers to go online-only.


By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

TThe worse things get for newspapers, the more articles and columns we encounter about "How to Save Newspapers." I guess this is one of them, although a better title might be, "Drastic Times Call for Drastic Measures."

Googling around, it appears that some pundits believe salvation for newspapers might lie in social media and the aggressive use of Twitter. Twitter is good, but not that good — and so far, it doesn't pay the bills. My favorite recommendation is "lickable ink." I'm pretty sure that one's a joke, but imagine the possibilities.

Some proposals have a little more traction, the favorites of the moment being micropayments and mini-subscriptions. Proponents say news organizations should support the development of a pay-as-you-go platform that would allow users to be charged for individual articles or windows of access without having to go through a payment process each time. Near-unanimous participation is critical; if some news sites give away content others are charging for, it won't work. I remain skeptical of this one; no doubt micropayments will come to fruition someday, but it seems improbable that the beleaguered, near-broke newspaper industry will successfully introduce them in time to save the business. But then again, I'm about to pitch an idea that's just as improbable:

I'd like to see what would happen if major daily news-papers in one-newspaper towns closed print operations and went completely digital. I'm not talking about the second newspaper in a two-newspaper town being forced online as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer recently was, but the only newspaper in town shutting down the presses and making a voluntary move to digital platforms.

Probably the closest thing is the decision by the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News to significantly reduce their print operations. In March, both stopped delivering papers on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. Condensed print editions remain available on newsstands. Papers are still delivered on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, which account for the bulk of print advertising revenue. Paying customers can download the papers' electronic editions. There are also plans to offer subscriptions on the Amazon Kindle and another e-reader developed by a company called Plastic Logic (see Drop Cap, page 12).

Shutting down the presses isn't something I would have recommended a few years ago. In fact, I'm not sure I'm recommending it now. Print advertising and subscription revenues, deflated though they may be, still make up the lion's share of newspaper revenue. And the disruptions necessary to make a complete transition could be more than a newspaper, or its staff, could take. This could prove to be more of a suicidal plunge than a bold leap.

On the other hand, newspapers claimed 27.7 percent of local online advertising revenue in 2008, according to Borrell Associates. That's not nearly enough to support the traditional vision of a full-fledged news operation, but all evidence suggests that print revenues can no longer support that vision, either.

Faced with drastic choices in all directions, papers might as well choose the direction in which their advertisers and readers clearly are headed. Each year, more people get their news online, and online ad spending — especially local spending — grows. (Actually, in 2008 online revenue for newspapers shrunk slightly and likely will this year due to the economy, but the drop in print revenue is far more precipitous and permanent.)

A new generation of user-friendly portable devices such as the iPhone and Kindle have accelerated the demand for mobile, digital content. If you've spent quality time with a Kindle (where people already pay to access newspaper and magazine content), you can begin to envision a world without ink and paper.

The very best hope is that a digital-only model would force newspapers to finally make the deep changes they've been flirting with for years. When you're strategizing for the Web, smart phones or e-readers, you change the way you think and the resources you use.

Much of the culture in today's newsrooms, sales departments and executive offices is still print-centered; how could it be otherwise? Take that away and there's a real chance for change.

I don't know whether anyone should follow my admittedly reckless advice; this is all meant to be provocative and a little extreme — because the circumstances are extreme. Those things that we're convinced can't be done might be the things that actually would save newspapers in some form if the industry would try them.

I do know this: Most people could give up printed newspapers if they had to, and that population is growing all the time. Local information and good journalism are far more valuable. There must be a way to save that.