By Gary Gerard
At the Times-Union, a 10,000 six-day daily in Warsaw, we published our first – albeit rudimentary – website in 1996.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that paying people to produce news content and then giving it away online for free was an absolutely useless and broken business model.
Shortly after we started uploading a few local news and sports stories online, one of my subscribers called me.
“Will you put obituaries on the Internet?” she asked. “Not sure,” I said, “Why do you ask?”
“Well,” she replied, “If you put the obituaries on the Internet, I won’t have to buy the newspaper.”
I had my epiphany. And frankly, I still don’t understand today why so many publishers have not come to the same bluntly obvious realization.
In virtually every market this size across the United States, if there is no print news, there is no online news. If the business model of tossing up a website and uploading local ads and content – pay wall or no pay wall – was profitable, independent digital dailies would be springing up in small towns all over America.
They aren’t, because they aren’t profitable. In small-daily markets, online news only works if there is a print vehicle behind it paying the bills. Even AOL’s vaunted patch.com is struggling and shutting down numerous sites – and volunteers staffed it in large part.
Print advertising works. Hear a commercial on the radio? Change channels. See a commercial on digital TV? Skip it. Click-through percentages on our web ads hover around 1 percent.
All the aforementioned forms of advertising are good only for branding. Print is the only medium where people buy the product for the ads.
If our inserter skips a cycle and a subscriber doesn’t get the Walgreens flyer, my phone rings. Subscribers want our ads, and they want them for the content, not just for the branding.
Print content is simply more compelling than digital.
Even the best websites can’t create the level of impact and variety of content that a print newspaper can. Story placement on a print page immediately prioritizes content for readers. Readers can quickly scan a newspaper for content that interests them.
Think local, state and international news and sports, comics, puzzles, Dear Abby, horoscope, letters to the editor, a full compliment of editorial and op-ed columnists, etc., all in one neat little package.
If you wanted to replicate the content of a daily newspaper online each day you would have to visit dozens of websites.
The notion that we must attract younger readers is a red herring.
I was told that in 1979 in a 400-level journalism class. I can show you textbooks from the 1960s that said if newspapers didn’t attract young readers, print would die out in 10 years because of the fracturing of advertising markets by the advent of TV and radio.
Here’s a news flash: Young readers have never read a newspaper. And they never will. When these young people get a little older, get married, have kids and buy a house, like magic the newspaper pops up as a good idea.
Suddenly, these former young people who never cared about newspapers want to know about property tax rates, school textbook choices and the best place to buy groceries or a car. And they want to see junior’s picture in there once and a while.
Print is far from dead.
Newspaper industry trainer Kevin Slimp’s observation that those promoting the death of print are those who would profit most from its death brings to mind Joseph Goebbels. You know, “The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed,” or “Repeat a lie often enough and people will believe it’s the truth.”
Gary Gerard is general manager at the Times-Union (Warsaw).