This isn't shocking news, but the InDenver Times website announced today that it fell short of its 50,000-paid subscription goal. The site, run by laid-off staff newsies from the newspaper that recently closed there, managed to sell only 3,000 subscriptions.
For those of you keeping score, that's 6 percent of their goal.
Why bother to talk about this? Hasn't the litany of pig-headed paid-content failures taught news executives anything?
And the answer is, apparently, that news executives are convinced they've failed in the past because they haven't been pig-headed hard enough.
Take a look at Arkansas Online, where you can't read anything but the headlines and the leads. Company president Walter Hussman's idea for the future of newspapers is that print subscribers to The Arkansas Democrat Gazette get a free membership that lets them read the same stories online. People who aren't print subscribers can buy a web-only subscription for $4.95 a month (I've heard it's going up a buck).
How's their traffic? Well, it's not so good compared to other sites. But the argument goes like this: The Arkansas Democrat Gazette doesn't WANT online readers. It wants print readers. Because it makes a lot more money for every print reader.
The logic, then, is that by hiding his online content, Hussman is forcing people to walk down to the newsstand and pay for it. He's not interested in making money online: He's interested in protecting the value of a print subscription. Not surprisingly, Hussman -- who doesn't exactly stand accused of producing one of America's finest or most enlightened newspapers -- has become a new hero to panicked publishers across the country
Sort of. Here's an excerpt from an Arkansas journalism blog, filed a year ago after the Democrat-Gazette held serve on its circulation figures:
Discussing his latest circ figures with E&P on Monday, Hussman credited charging for online content for keeping the DG’s circ on the rise. And he added that
… free news on other Web sites could explain the recent drop in circulation.
“Our home delivery circulation is up, but single-copy sales are off, and the reason for the overall decrease,” Hussman told E&P. “The instant availability of news, for free, on desktops, laptops, Treos, iPhones, etc. — not to mentions multiple cable channels — is our best guess for the continuing softness in single copy. It is hard to compete with free.”
Indeed. That might be why in northwest Arkansas, where Hussman is fighting a newspaper war with Stephens Media, stories from that regional edition of the DG are online for free. The Arkansas Times blog points out other ways Hussman has used “free” in the past to battle competitors. I guess sometimes you’re the windshield, and sometimes you’re the bug.
OK, so we get it. It's not about the principle, it's about the money. That's capitalism. Yet Hussman continues to draw praise and attention for "standing up" ... to... somebody....
So, to recap: Newspapers are advertising businesses that invented the once highly profitable system of giving away news to attract readers to their expensive ads. And for decades the leaders of these newspapers "stood up to" all those wacky hippies in their newsrooms when they advocated for "quality" and other such communist claptrap. Yes, these brave executives stood up and told those ungrateful employees to sit down and shut up! Because this is a business, not a charity!
And now that those advertising revenues are plummeting and they can't make as much online and people aren't buy their print product, those same executives are expecting -- no, DEMANDING, like petulant brats in very nice suits -- to be paid for their news content. For the first time.
Wait, I can hear you out there. Newspapers don't give away news! Newspapers charge people to read the news!
O, were that only true!
Newspaper companies charge you for a physical object called "a newspaper." You're paying for wood pulp, printing and delivery. But the news part? Free. This system was so profitable for so long that there are thousands of publications that even give away the physical object. They make enough money off the ads around all that free content that some of them make more money by giving away the whole sheegang.
And of course newspapers exist in competitive markets now, since there are TV and radio stations that provide news and information and entertainment, all given away for free so those companies -- which are literally in the business of renting out your attention -- can turn a profit.
And then the Web came along. And suddenly everything changed.
You hear a lot of complaints about how "the web is killing journalism." No it isn't. The Web just reduced the value of your attention by increasing the supply of things you pay attention to. TV did the same thing, but TV was just a warm up act.
The Web broke monopolies. It made the attention market more efficient. It keeps finding new market values, and being competitive, they tend to work well for the buyer, not the seller. Trust me: If newspaper companies were making the same returns on web advertising that they STILL make of print ads, you would be hearing exactly NONE of this talk about the immorality of people getting their news for free.
It's classic capitalism, and you'd think media executives -- the ultimate capitalists -- would appreciate that.
So let's call a thing what it is: News companies like their double-digit profits and they aim to keep them. And today, a bunch of scared executives are looking to paid online subscriptions to save the day.
Only it won't happen. We've proven this again and again, and despite Hussman's claims of success in Little Rock, The Arkansas Democrat Gazette has a long way to go before anyone can start holding it up as a beacon for the future.
Yes, there are exceptions. They don't disprove the rule.
The rule is, adapt or die. And these companies are clearly choosing death.