Oct 29, 2009

Quieting the chatterers of doom

A lot of social media advocates have already shown up for the newspaper industry's wake, and the latest circulation numbers gave them another reason to cheer/mourn. But the industry has yet to die. Except for a relatively few newspapers in troubled markets, papers continue to pull in revenues that dwarf those of even popular online news sites.

That's not to say newspapers aren't in trouble, or that revenues aren't shrinking, or that shrunken revenues haven't left newsrooms stretched too thin, crushing the morale of reporters still on the job. But, to paraphrase Dan Gross of Slate, the grave dancers need to chill the f#@k out:
So in the past six months, according to ABC, the New York Times' daily circulation fell 7.3 percent, while Sunday circulation was down 2.7 percent. Horreur! And yet, the New York Times Co. reported that in the third quarter, "circulation revenues rose 6.7 percent, mainly because of higher subscription and newsstand prices at The New York Times and The Boston Globe." In the quarter, circulation revenues were larger than advertising revenues for the first time—$175.25 million, compared with $164.5 million.

By the way, you can still make money publishing newspapers—even in a period when advertising has plummeted. Check out Gannett's third-quarter earnings report. Its newspapers pulled in more than $100 million of operating income on revenues of $1.04 billion. In the first three quarters of 2009, advertising revenues were off 31.6 percent, but circulation revenues were off less than 5 percent, even though many of Gannett's flagship papers lost subscribers.

In the last year, Gannet bled its newsrooms of journalists - not a healthy long term strategy. The New York Times announced another round of buyouts in hopes of trimming 100 newsroom jobs. Clearly this isn't a growth strategy. But the fact that an economic meltdown, a massive technology change and a multitude of self-inflicted wounds have yet to destroy newspapers is something to consider. Again from Gross:

This is the new emerging model—cutting costs, raising prices. It may still fail in the end. But we shouldn't act as if the online-only crowd has it all figured out. Every month, several million Americans pay to have newspapers and magazines delivered to their homes—a trick most online publications have yet to pull off. In fact, in some regards, print-online hybrids like newspapers and magazines have outperformed online-only publications. The Web operations of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal aren't exactly slouches when it comes to selling online ads. And as poorly as the stock of the New York Times has performed over the past decade, most people would have preferred owning it to the stock of Salon.com, or TheStreet.com.

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