It’s been said you can’t cut your way to prosperity, but The New York Times is gonna try.
The Times is expanding while at the same time cutting newsroom jobs, launching regional editions in San Francisco and Chicago, using nonprofit organizations as bureaus.
The idea is to reach new audiences, using local journalists to report the news.
It might work.
But it’s probably too little, too late.
The Audit Bureau of Circulations released its six-month report on Monday, showing that, on average, U.S. daily newspaper subscriptions from April to September were down 10.6 percent from the same timeframe in 2008.
That figure includes some mammoth drops for big-time papers, including minus-17.2 percent for USA Today, minus-18.5 percent for The Boston Globe and minus-22.2 percent for The Dallas Morning News.
But these staggering statistics don’t mean that people aren’t reading and aren’t receiving news. On the contrary, the National Endowment for the Arts released a study in January that showed reading is actually on the rise among Americans. So, the problem isn’t that people aren’t reading; it’s that people aren’t reading newspapers.
Newspapers were too slow to jump on the online bandwagon, but now that they have, it’s clear that everything about newspapers has transitioned well to the Web. In fact, many things about newspapers have been improved by the transition…except one: revenue.
In an effort to remain relevant as the Information Age dawned, most major U.S. newspapers started putting their content online after the print edition had been delivered, and offering it for free.
Then, in an effort to remain relevant as news Web sites popped up and began publishing stories by the minute, many newspapers started putting their content online as quickly as they could — rather than waiting until the paper had actually been delivered — still offering it for free.
So, what’s a reader to do? Wait until the next day to learn the news, and pay for it to be plopped down on the doorstep? Or get it online, while it’s happening, for nothing?
The New York Times’ Web site averages 21.5 million unique visitors per month — “unique visitors” being those who hit the site more than once during the month. The Washington Post claims 9.2 million a month. Yet both papers saw declines in print subscriptions in the ABC report, the Times at minus-7.3 percent and the Post at minus-6.4 percent.
So, clearly the issue isn’t that readers don’t see value in newspaper content…they just don’t want to pay for it. And they certainly don’t want to wait until the next day for it.
Some papers are trying to convert their Web sites to paid subscription services. And Newsday announced last week that it’ll join the movement and begin charging for its online content, starting today.
But how can major newspapers expect readers to pay for online content now after they’ve gotten it for free all this time? Unless every newspaper in America were to jump on board and begin charging online subscription rates at the same time, it just won’t work at this point, not with so much content available for free all over the Web.
If papers can come up with a model for providing online content that is truly unique, an online subscription service could eventually thrive. But the content would have to be the kind of thing readers felt they just couldn’t live without…you know, like internet service and cable television.
Revenue from online advertising has been slow, at best, for newspapers, especially with the recession keeping business budgets tight. Some think an upturn in the economy will rectify that, and it might.
In the meantime, newspapers are in a dangerous cycle, with decreased advertising revenue leading to layoffs, which are leading to inferior products, which aren’t doing anything to entice readers to reverse the current subscription trend.
So what will reverse the trend?
Maybe nothing. But if anything’s going to do it, it’ll have to be creative, outside-the-box thinking like the New York Times is showing by partnering with nonprofit groups to create regional editions.
It’s a grim outlook, though; outside-the-box thinking has not exactly been the mark of the newspaper industry. In fact, it was the distinct lack of such thinking, across the industry, that helped create the current condition.
Now, only time will tell if newspapers can pick themselves up, dust themselves off and plop themselves back on people’s doorsteps.