The Gazette’s new owner met with his new Colorado Springs employees this week. I wasn’t at the meeting, obviously, so I don’t have first-hand information. But, based on what he told his new employees at the Orange County Register, and based on what I’m seeing on Facebook following his appearance in the Springs, I would caution against reading too much into Aaron Kushner’s remarks.
Here’s part of what he told the Register staff:
“The conventional wisdom is that you must put digital first if you are going to be successful. I believe there is actually only one thing we should be putting first, which is subscribers.”
He said something similar to the Gazette staff:
“At the end of the day, there is a core, loyal group of subscribers who support these institutions, depend upon these institutions. And we believe, and I believe from a business perspective, there is strength in that foundation and we hope to build upon that foundation.”
These statements have been met by some with bitter told-you-so responses. If you want people to buy the newspaper — and advertisers to buy space in the newspaper, — then invest in a bigger, better printed newspaper. Duh.
No doubt, you’ll sink the business by putting out a crappy newspaper. But I’m not convinced that the converse is true — that by putting out a good printed newspaper you can save, let alone grow, the overall business.
I don’t see anything in Kushner’s statements that amount to a complete repudiation of digital news, or a complete vindication of the printed newspaper. His language suggests to me that all options, a better printed paper among them, are open.
Hey, it’s great if Kushner wants to re-invest in the talent and resources needed to add more pages and news to the printed edition of the Gazette (UPDATE: See what he’s doing, for example, at the Register). If he can do that and make a profit, more power to him. There are a lot of people who would be thrilled if the Gazette returned tomorrow to the 5-section metro configuration of its heyday, complete with columnists in every section, daily TV listings, copious amounts of international news and three pages of stocks tables.
There are a lot of people who would be thrilled if the Tercel in their driveway turned into a Mercedes, too. The essential question isn’t whether people would like a bigger, better printed newspaper. The essential question is whether enough people, either subscribers or advertisers, will pay for a bigger, better newspaper. And I don’t think the answer to that question is obvious.
Remember, even the news companies that spend the most on their printed editions and produce the best American journalism are experiencing double-digit drops in their print-advertising revenue. And the companies that publish the best printed newspapers also happen to run some of the best online news sites, too.
As much as we’d like to flatter ourselves otherwise, advertiser abandonment of printed newspapers began earlier than, and has little to do with, the dismantling of copy desks, or with the elimination of stocks tables, or with diminished investigative journalism. It has just about everything to do with newer advertising technology that does a better job of pushing customers into the store. It has everything to do with the fact that digital advertising is much more efficient — pay only for the audience you want — than the take-it-or-leave-it, blanket-the-city requirement of newspapers that zoning only partly ameliorates. Craigslist arrived, and drained away local newspaper classified revenue, before newsroom layoffs began in earnest. And what Amazon (oh, and now eBay, too) plans to do — same-day delivery of your online purchase — will take a chunk out of the only advertising category still somewhat owned by newspapers: local retail. Especially to advertisers, the internet is not a fad.
In the halcyon pre-internet days, the newspaper economic model worked like this: Each day, the news in the paper assembled the largest single audience in the market. That audience gathered around the newspaper in good faith, because the newspaper acted as an honest broker of information. Good journalism built a big audience. The business side of the paper rented the attention of the audience to advertisers.
The virtuous circle of quality-begets-advertising-begets-quality isn’t gone. Indeed, the circle has multiplied — or rather, broken apart, into a zillion smaller, digital circles, each one drawn ever-tighter around ever-more-specific topics and ever-more-targeted audiences. Within those circles, the quality of news and other content continues to be important. It’s not that quality no longer matters. It’s that mass no longer matters. And a general-interest daily local printed newspaper, because of the immense costs associated mostly with manufacturing and distribution, requires a mass audience to be viable.
Remember, too, that the gazette.com online paywall is coming. And the people who pay for internet access to the news are “subscribers,” too. Kushner said Job 1 is to make subscribers happy. He didn’t say “print subscribers.”
I certainly hope the new boss invests more deeply in Gazette. But I wouldn’t take his early comments to mean he intends to invest only in the printed paper, to the exclusion of the digital side.