Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: Online May Be the Future, but What About Me?

Posted at 6:12 am, May 16th, 2007
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

Snip, snip, snip….That’s my scissors clipping more evidence of my daily paper’s service to its non-paying online readers. One of the clips calls attention to ideas for Mother’s Day, another to a Harry Potter blog, another to a column on postage changes, another to new businesses in town, and still another to fallout from higher gas prices. All available online without paying a cent.

I am among what the newspaper business ought to consider its best customers. I subscribe 365 days a year. I pay on-time; even better, I pay four weeks ahead of time. So why does the paper tell me, in effect, that I’m less valued than the online freeloader to whom it provides content it denies to me unless I invest in, and boot-up, a computer?

I know the answer. Online is the future and I am the past. But to be reminded of that, relentlessly, is not a smart business strategy. In fact, it’s downright dumb to promote the heck out of content that’s denied to your best customers. In my experience, it’s highly irritating, especially when the paper adds injury to insult by allowing anonymous posts from online contributors encouraged by the newspaper to clutter up and debase the paper’s content.

The hope presumably is that eventually enough visitors can be attracted online that ads will follow and the newspaper can do away with paper and hand delivery and perhaps even with its pesky paying customers. That may be a forlorn hope. Warren Buffett, who knows a thing or two about newspapers and how to make money, commented recently, “…the economic potential of a newspaper internet site – given the alternative sources of information and entertainment that are free and only a click away – is at best a small fraction of that existing in the past for a print newspaper facing no competition.” So better not be too quick to toss overboard faithful readers like me.

Several years ago, at a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, an editor stood up and, in what can only be described as an emperor-has-no-clothes moment, demanded to know why newspapers were giving away free news on their Internet sites. The several hundred editors present seemed stunned, and none offered an answer.

It’s still a very good question, and even more pertinent given continuing and accelerating declines in circulation.

At the paper where I do business, they give away not only news but all sorts of locally-produced features. I learn from the paper that staffers are churning out blogs. I assume that the time and creative energy needed to produce a blog detracts from the work the staffers do for the print readers. So not only do we miss out on what’s put online, we’re shortchanged on what’s in print.

Walter E. Hussman, Jr., the successful publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, wrote recently, “The newspaper industry wonders why it is losing young readers. These readers might be young, but many of them are smart, not to mention computer-savvy. Why would they buy a newspaper when they can get the same information online for free?”

That’s the identical question asked decades ago at ASNE. This increasingly antagonized reader is still waiting for a good answer.

In the farewell column May 6 by the departing New York Times Public Editor, Byron Calame, it was hard to miss his concern about the push for online content coming at the expense of the print edition. He wrote that profits from online advertising “may be a long time coming” and how “doing more with the same size staff of reporters …has implications for the quality of the reporting.” Calame could have added that unless papers quit making obvious passes at the online non-payers they may have a lot of jilted customers to contend with.

10 Responses to “Online May Be the Future, but What About Me?”

  1. Warren Buffett News » Blog Archive » Watchdog Blog » Blog Archive » Online May Be the Future, but What About Me? says:

    [...] Watchdog Blog » Blog Archive » Online May Be the Future, but What About Me? [...]

  2. Rogers Cadenhead says:

    Online readers pay for newspaper content with our eyeballs and mouse clicks. This model works better than trying to charge for content online, and newspapers that don’t learn this will be left behind by the news providers that do.

    I love the print edition of newspapers, but the genie’s out of the bottle. Readers expect to get their news online for free.

    Would it be easier for papers if this weren’t true? Sure. And it would also be easier for papers if we all still went downtown to shop at large department stores that fill the city dailies with full-page ads and did all our buying and selling of small goods through classified ads.

    If there’s anything journalists should notice, it’s the fact that times change and you have to adjust to them.

  3. Troy McCullough says:

    Mr. Cranberg, you contradict yourself. On one hand, you lament that newspapers are giving away content online, while on the other hand, you’re complaining that the same newspapers are somehow denying you access to this content because you refuse to invest in a computer.

    Furthermore, it strikes me as odd that the same people who complain about giving away content online have no qualms about essentially giving away print papers for 25 cents an issue. Is there really only 25 cents’ worth of news in your morning paper? Of course not. But print readers aren’t paying for the content; they’re paying for the expensive distribution costs of the publication — those papers don’t arrive on your front steps for free, after all. The Internet has no comparable costs; bandwidth is much less expensive than printing presses, newsprint, delivery trucks and paper boys.

    What this really comes down to, I suspect, is an aversion to change. This is an industry bound by its traditions, for better or worse. But in light of the profound financial troubles we’re facing, it would be foolish for newspapers to not try to harness the technological advances of the day, which, as we all know, newspapers have been doing since the days of hot type.

    I agree with you and others that gutting the print paper and abandoning faithful print readers to bolster the online edition is a recipe for disaster, but your refusal to look at your newspaper’s Web site hardly amounts to the paper tossing you and your print brethren overboard.

    And running active Web is not mutually exclusive to publishing a robust print paper — though print does have some obvious disadvantages: Features like blogs, video, audio, message boards, interactive charts and maps, and photo galleries are impossible to reproduce in newsprint. But the good news is that more and more online readers — freeloaders you call them — are tuning in every day. You may not like your paper’s Web strategy, but it may very well save your newspaper.

  4. Jay Renard says:

    I read newspapers and appreciate the info on online features. This guy seems a bit uptight and perhaps insecure that he does not understand how to use a computer.

  5. D Willis says:

    If there is any good news at all in the decline in newspaper readers and advertising, it is that it cannot continue without killing off a great deal of that free content that makes the Internet so attractive.

    Think about it. What would the Internet look like, and how valuable would it be as a source of information if there were no newspapers feeding it free content?

    It may be a long and painful ride. But newspapers will survive; not because of their publishers, despite them.

  6. Robert Blade says:

    Your piece sounds a little like a sore loser’s lament: I’m paying for the same stuff that others are getting for free.

    But most Americans today, thanks to the radio and TV precedent, are used to getting their news and information without paying. The Web carries it all a giant step further.

    I’ve forgotten who said this first, but the railroads’ passenger business is a nice parallel. Instead of adapting to new technology, the companies stayed with the old form even as business dwindled. Even to me, a habitual (and paying) newspaper reader for years, the lesson for the industry is clear.

  7. Howard Owens says:

    Sir, you have never, ever in your life paid for news.

    You have paid for the paper, the delivery truck and the paper boy, but never for the news.

    So why should the online reader, who needs no dead trees, nor the rest of the infrastructure, be required to pay for something you get for free?

    If you don’t want a computer, fine, but don’t ask online readers to subsidize your free loading.

  8. media blog » Blog Archive » Jim Romenesko, please link to this post says:

    [...] Here’s the latest. [...]

  9. Bob Higgins says:

    Howard Owens continues to promote the fallacy that the online product has minimal costs, since there are no dead trees, trucks, etc.

    The numbers aren’t the same, to be sure, but servers and other hardware, software, bandwidth, ISP costs, IT programmers and support staff, people to produce, package and present all that dynamic content — that’s all very expensive stuff as well, particularly to do it well.

    It’s easy to blame publishers for being stuck in the past, unwilling to change, etc. But keep in mind they’re investing millions in the new infrastructure while still maintaining the old. So I’m willing to cut them some slack when they look around and wonder where the revenue is going to come from.

    It’s all well and good to consider yourself a visionary, but it’s a lot tougher when you’re the one paying this year’s bills.

  10. Vindu Goel says:

    As an editorial writer and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News, I’d like to address one aspect of Gilbert’s complaint: that online content shortchanges the print reader.

    He says, “I assume that the time and creative energy needed to produce a blog detracts from the work the staffers do for the print readers. So not only do we miss out on what’s put online, we’re shortchanged on what’s in print.”

    My experience — and the experience of the Mercury News generally — is that blogs enrich the print paper.

    Sure, it takes time to write a blog post. But sometimes that’s a rough draft or exploration of an idea that will later be refined into a print article. Early feedback from engaged readers on these drafts is helpful to refine ideas and improve the final piece. And any journalist who blogs or produces multimedia pieces will tell you that he or she ends up spending extra hours on them to make them great — so if anything gets shortchanged, it’s our personal lives.

    Online content not only provides extra value to readers, but it draws them into the conversation in a way that we only dreamed of in the old days.

    Now if only the industry could find a way to make enough money online to pay for all the reporters, writers, editors, videographers, designers and Web programmers necessary to keep the whole thing running……

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