About Me

  • I've spent more than 25 years at the intersection of traditional and digital journalism. I've helped to invent ways to read and interact with the news and advertising on computer screens and iPads, and before that, I wrote news stories on typewriters and six-ply paper. I co-founded WashingtonPost.com and hyperlocal pioneers Backfence.com and GrowthSpur; served as editor of Philly.com; taught media entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland; and have done product-development and strategy consulting for all sorts of media and Internet companies and startups. You can read more about me here.

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« What Will Happen When the Presses Go Silent? | Main | Be Prepared »

August 27, 2008


Mads Kristensen

Amen to all of the above. However the Printies still have one very strong argument (well, at least they do in Europe):

They are still making a lot more revenue on print than online, and the gains on online don't offset the losses on paper.

Until that is 'solved', Printies will continue to argue their case. So how do we solve this?


Not only will the online websites not replace the revenue of print newspapers, they may ultimately fail completely. Ad blockers are becoming increasingly popular, and they are very effective. Sooner or later, advertisers will begin to notice that web surfers are not responding to their ads and pull them (the second most-popular add-in to Firefox right now is AdBlock Plus).

I think this is very probable, but no one seems to want to talk about it. That is, putting extraordinary effort into a web presence with a failing business model may be a futile enterprise.

Of course, the question will arise: Well, now what?

Mark Potts

As I've written in the past, one reason online revenue is having trouble catching up to print is because newspapers have done a lousy job of creating Web products that attract a lot of revenue. Banner ads on newspapers pasted on a screen just don't cut it. Newspaper Web sites need to be much more aggressive about offering more Web-centric services like search, data, contextual advertising and hyperlocal news that can be sold to small local advertisers. Most newspaper sites still are very primitive compared to online revenue powerhouses like Google. Incidentally, most of the Printie behavior I describe doesn't increase revenue, and in fact adds costs.

As for ad-blockers, I wouldn't lose any sleep over them. They're used by a tiny percentage of Web denizens, and that's unlikely to change. This tends to shock journalists, but most consumers actually LIKE avertising, and consider it just as valuable as news content.


I think you are a little dyspeptic this morning, but there are many other things to complain about in today's news industry than PDFs.
The main reason the newspaper industry is pumping out PDFs is that libraries and the Library of Congress now wants them instead of the mailed paper product. It saves shovel-loads of money, which as taxpayers we all should applaud, and newspapers are required to file their copies with the LC to keep their copyrights. I don't need to tell you how easy it is to transmit PDF.
As an historian who uses these records from time to time, I truly love PDF versions of newspapers and books. I have spent too many hours reading microfilm and microfiche in a backlit reader not to be really jealous of a generation that has easy and efficient searches of mounds of documents. In the past you had to sit there reading frame after consecutive frame, then printing out or copying what you wanted by hand.
PDF gives you the capability of cutting and saving to your computer, so it is not a technology used by historian "printies," but those saving a lot of time and effort.
Bottom line: God bless PDF


LOL online won't replace print. I keep challenging bloggers, charge 1 penny a day to your readers. I betcha everyone of them will lose 90 percent of their readers.

Reporters need to stop put the interesting stuff on blogs and put it in the newspaper.

Pat Thornton


You're an idiot. What newspapers charge money to read their content? They don't. They charge money to cover printing and distribution costs, which the cost of a newspaper doesn't even cover.

I get the Sunday Washington Post delivered to my apartment for less than $0.50 an issue. I can only imagine how much it costs to print and distribute that beneath with rising fuel and paper costs.

Newspapers make money off of advertising. So do bloggers. It's that simple.

This isn't rocket science.

Working Reporter

Ease up on the condescension, Mark. It adds nothing to the debate and alienates people who should be learning from your views. Frankly, it's beneath you.

Yes, there are luddites working at newspapers, as there are at any business experiencing radical transformation, and their reluctance to change is a problem. I agree with you that the reluctance by many managers to let go of print has hampered digital innovation.

There are also "digital idealists" at papers, people who seize on every new e-gadget and insist that the newspaper must embrace it, even if it offers no obvious new journalistic or financial benefit. They, too, are a problem.

Newspapers are poorly served both by blind traditionalism and by blind idealism. They need instead to embrace open-eyed pragmatism, selecting their tools based on their ability to deliver content and to bring in revenue adequate to continue creating that product.

A pragmatist looking at the print product would not simply abandon it, nor scoff at its fans. At most newspapers, the print product delivers more than ninety percent -- ninety percent! -- of total revenue, and effectively delivers news and ads to tens or hundreds of thousands of readers. By no measure is this technology obsolete or irrelevant.

On the other hand, we have electronic media of many types, many still evolving. The potential of these media is obvious and exciting, with the possibility of delivering news and advertising to thousands, millions -- billions! -- and permitting a radical new form of interactive journalism that we're only beginning to imagine.

But, so far, the new model doesn't make money -- or not much. On average revenue from online makes up about seven percent of newspapers' total revenue, according to the NAA. And in the past few years, the growth of that revenue has begun to slow, even as newspapers embraced new media tools such as blogs, video, article comments and RSS.

As I noted recently in a related post at Alan Mutter's site (http://newsosaur.blogspot.com/2008/08/fourth-publisher-charm-for-lat.html) the consultants advising newspapers on their online product have tended to respond to that troubling trend by suggesting newspapers add more Web 2.0 features to their sites, despite a lack of evidence that those features actually build revenue.

A pragmatic view -- what I called the "accountant's" view at Mutter's site -- would be to base newspaper business decisions not on tradition nor on promises of a new era dawning, but on hard data: income and loss. The next steps forward should lead clearly toward solvency; otherwise they're not worth taking. It does us no good to create an exciting new kind of journalism if it comes with an eviction notice.

Let's look at how we can make more money and commit better journalism using all the tools in the box.

What if we redesigned print newspapers as niche stand-alone magazines, making them more attractive both to advertisers and to subscribers, who could subscribe just to the sections that interest them and receive their news in a glossy, attractive, reader-friendly package?

What if the Inquirer's move to publish major enterprise pieces simultaneously in print and online -- rather than online first -- manages to slow the decline of print circulation without harming the popularity of the Web site? What if the paper gains just enough time from that strategy to develop a better online model? Is that really so foolish?

On the other hand, if protecting the print product angers readers online and off, harming circulation, CPMs and the paper's bottom line, isn't it obviously a bad idea, no matter what the traditionalists say?

And on the online side, what pragmatic sense is there in spending dwindling resources on new technologies with no proven ability to pay their own way? Doesn't it make more sense to invest, first, in the critical research and development to create a new model that illuminates the public AND keeps the lights on in the newsroom?

In the end, this isn't really a newspaper issue. It's a content production issue. Everybody -- artists and musicians, reporters and bloggers, photographers and programmers -- everybody who creates a product that can be transformed into digital form has an interest in finding a new way to make money off that product online.

Pat Thornton notes that newspapers have never made their money off charging for content directly, and that's true. But it seems increasingly clear that the model newspapers have used -- free content supported by advertisers -- doesn't translate online.

The most successful models of online journalism -- sites like the HuffingtonPost, Drudge Report or TPM -- succeed only because they produce no or very little content. And the people who run those sites will tell you they're having as hard a time figuring out how to scale their models to support the kind of staff needed to expose secret prisons overseas, to reveal public corruption or even to keep up with a mid-sized city council.

Charging for content -- even registering readers -- remains enormously unpopular, as does preventing other sites from reusing newspaper content (despite a lack of evidence that the traffic such reuse sends to the newspapers' sites is economically valuable.)

But newspapers must find a new revenue stream -- partnering with ISPs? Direct sales of specialized content? Non-profit models? -- or many of them will go out of business. And I suspect that the massive corporate media organizations that survive that shakeout will be far less concerned about irritating online readers by charging for content -- or about serving the public's need for thorough, accurate and fearless journalism.

We are poorly served by divisive posts mocking those who cling to traditional journalism, or dismissing those seeking a new path. We need to work together to find business models that can demonstrate, with hard numbers, an ability to succeed in a capitalist economy.

You know those emerging models as well as anybody, Mark. And rather than spend your time coining snarky nicknames for those you think are on the wrong path, I wish you'd invest your talents in blazing a new trail to financial and journalistic success. I'll be right behind you.


Printies will be aghast, but digital is quietly killing off the need for news editors, who traditionally created content. This content reflected the editors' values, biases and politics. Now that Web readers can assemble their news content with a few clicks from favorite Web sites, there is no need for "professional" editors. A reader can search the wires, blogs and online pubs and decide what's news, and what aint. No more threadbare "World ends; women, children hardest hit" stories, which aging boomer-era journos seem to love.
Digital has also killed the need for publishers, since today any high school kid (or recovering journalist) can fire up a blog and publish at will, for free, and have as much reach as any printosaur legacy media type. Take down the Pulitzers. The Webbies are the new gold standard.
Don't trust anyone over 30 to make your digital product a success.

W. McLeod

It is of little comfort to know we’re only one of many publications struggling with the transition from revenue models based on print advertising to online advertising. An effective route by which publications can safely navigate this change has yet to be discovered. Unless…. We begin to view ourselves as an online publication that happens to have a reverse pub component. Perspective is realty.

Howard Owens


When I ran the Ventura County Star web site, we did a little redesign and removed the "subscribe" link. The circulation director came to me immediately and said, "what are you doing to me?" He had in his hand, a print out showing the web site was generating about 20 new subscribers per month. Now that was a few years ago, but why should we make it hard for people to find a way to subscribe to our most profitable product on our web sites?

Us Onlinies always argue that we shouldn't force people into getting news how we think they should get news -- so why shouldn't we make it easy for them to get the print edition if that's what they want? Some of our readers, even ones who visit our web sites, really still do prefer print.

And the same can be said for the PDF version.

Now, when I was at the Star, our PDF version was a commercial flop, so I always thought they were a waste of time, but since joining GateHouse, I've learned that they are very big with subscribers in some rural communities. Snowbird from small towns love them and demand them. I don't like them, but why should my prejudice be forced on people who say they like them?

I'm also one who doesn't believe online is going to kill print.

The decline of print started long before there was a web, driven by forces that have little to do with technology. Those forces have much to do with more choices (which yes, does include the Internet now), changing lifestyles, a more mobile (less rooted) culture, and problems with journalism itself (core, deep problems). The more troubling trends are driven by declining readership along generational lines, which goes back 80 years and has nothing to do with the web.

To say that all of our efforts should be concentrated on the web is just as hidebound as the attitudes of the worst of the Printies.

Print has at least 20 years of life left in it, and it would be foolish to throw away that revenue.

The challenge for newspapers is to figure out how to create new business opportunities online while maintaining (if not improving) their print products. But it's a losing proposition on multiple levels to view online as a competition to print, rather than just a whole new opportunity.


People, Mark is right -- as usual. Change is hard. Stop yapping, take a deep breath and realize that the world is moving on -- and you (yes, I mean Printies) need to move on too. Wait a minute, the world already moved on. Printies just haven't figured it out yet.

Working Reporter

Thanks for that, Joewhoknows. Your thoughts on how to transition from the printcentric business model -- the one that provides the vast majority of newspaper revenue -- to an online model? In your answer, you might find it useful to look at the recent update to Mark's fine work on the limitations of the current online model at http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=4517

I'm genuinely interested in your constructive suggestions, if you have any to offer.



And as a 20-something reporter, it is oh-so-frustrating.

Small Town Editor


You know nothing about publishing. Three sources of revenue for print. Advertising, subscription and newsstand. Advertising being 90%. What the print edition allows is "Real Estate" to sell. Editorial costs money, ads make money. Simple. Editorial brings readers, ads pay for the editorial folks.

This business model sounds like it should apply to online newspapers but it does not. A typical 64 page paper running at a standard 50/50 ratio of ads versus edit. So 32 pages are what the paper sells. That is quite a bit of "product" to make money with. Compare that to online where there is limited real estate to sell. How deep with readers drill to experience all the banner ads? When is that last time you clicked on a banner ad? Page views and unique visitors can generate a bit of cash but nothing like the print version.

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