The do-nothing newspaper publishers

The adver­tis­ing direc­tor handed me a copy of the Montana Newspaper Association’s Press Pass newslet­ter a cou­ple weeks ago, point­ing me toward an col­umn by Tom Mullen, the pub­lisher of the Philipsburg Mail and the Silver State Post, a cou­ple of smaller Montana newspapers.

In the col­umn, Mullen, who has owned and man­aged “more than a dozen com­mu­nity news­pa­pers for close to 20 years,” points out that nobody has found a solid way to make money from online news yet. So his solu­tion: ignore the Web.

I’m seri­ous.

Mullen lists five points in his col­umn, and all of them are designed to either limit the con­tent a news­pa­per puts online or to ignore the Web until some­body fig­ures out how to make money on it.

His points (pre­sented with­out any punc­tu­a­tion fixes):

  • First and most impor­tant, do as lit­tle as possible.
  • If you must have an online pres­ence use it only to tease reg­u­lar paid sub­scrip­tions to your print product.
  • If you must sell web-based sub­scrip­tions to your news­pa­pers charge at least six-times your reg­u­lar sub­scrip­tion rate.
  • If you must sell inter­net adver­tis­ing don’t charge much for it, because it isn’t worth much.
  • Be patient.

I can under­stand some of these. Small town papers don’t have the online fol­low­ing that larger papers in larger com­mu­ni­ties do. That’s espe­cially true in Montana, where peo­ple liv­ing in rural areas can have a hard time get­ting Internet access, period. These com­mu­ni­ties are not going to have a sub­stan­tial online read­er­ship for quite a few years.

It’s nat­ural for these smaller papers to see less ben­e­fit from a strong web­site. When you’re run­ning a small busi­ness and count your cus­tomers in the hun­dreds or low thou­sands, you want to do all you can to pro­tect your mon­ey­maker — print.

However, I just have to ask the ques­tion. How do you think peo­ple will get their news in 15 years? Will the major­ity of them still want it on paper, or will they want it online? How about in 30 years?

Print will inevitably become the minor­ity prod­uct. Sure, we can try to squeeze as much money out of while it’s here and some­what prof­itable, but the medium is doomed. I like to com­pare the sit­u­a­tion to oil. We know we’re run­ning out of oil, but the peo­ple whose indus­tries depend on it now are try­ing to squeeze as much money out of crude as they can while it’s here.

Both pub­lish­ers and oil com­pany mag­nates know full-well that they should be invest­ing in future alter­na­tives to keep their enter­prises alive in the long-term. The lure of the short-term, how­ever, is powerful.

Mullen’s five points are an exam­ple of short-term, profit-focused think­ing. Yes, news­pa­pers are a busi­ness, and you’ve got to think about the money — or at least some­body does. But ignor­ing the future is — flatly put — stupid.

Let’s go through Mullen’s points one by one.

“First and most impor­tant, do as lit­tle as pos­si­ble.” Mullen says that news­pa­pers are “largely respon­si­ble for what lit­tle cred­i­bil­ity that’s avail­able on the inter­net.” I have no idea what he means by this.

He goes on to say that news­pa­pers are “the most viable and suc­cess­ful adver­tis­ing media” and that you can’t make that more prof­itable while giv­ing your con­tent away online. Probably true, I’ll grant. However, this is a phi­los­o­phy that looks at news­pa­pers as a busi­ness and not as a pub­lic good. This is the dif­fer­ence, I think, between busi­ness office think­ing and news­room think­ing (and maybe even J-school thinking).

He also says that web­sites will attract more frag­mented audi­ences. Therefore, they’ll be tar­get­ing frag­mented audi­ences for ads, mean­ing you can’t sell ads for as much money. Again, prob­a­bly true.

Then he writes, “Doing noth­ing is the sin­gle best method of improv­ing your newspaper’s finan­cial suc­cess.” I think I’ve already expressed my opin­ion of this line of thinking.

“If you must have an online pres­ence use it only to tease reg­u­lar paid sub­scrip­tions to your print prod­uct.” I’ll put it to you straight: If this is all your web­site is, then you will never see or begin to explore the ben­e­fits of hav­ing a strong website.

“If you must sell web-based sub­scrip­tions to your news­pa­pers charge at least six-times your reg­u­lar sub­scrip­tion rate.” A strat­egy designed to ham­string your online sales and force cus­tomers into the print option. I don’t think it’s insult­ing to put it bluntly like that. It’s a valid strat­egy if your goal is sim­ply to pro­tect print.

And look at it this way, if you ever actu­ally get some fool to sign up for your shoddy (see pre­vi­ous bolded point), over­priced web­site, you’ll be able to rein­vest some of that big e-subscription money into research on how to use the Web effectively.

“If you must sell inter­net adver­tis­ing don’t charge much for it, because it isn’t worth much.” It isn’t worth very much in gen­eral, but with the right tar­get­ing, it can be worth plenty to adver­tis­ers. If you can guar­an­tee to an that the audi­ence that sees its ads is just the audi­ence they want, then the adver­tiser will pay more.

Oh, and if you have already fol­lowed Mullen’s last two points, all you’ll have to show adver­tis­ers is a content-poor site with a half-dozen page views a month. Of course you won’t make any money try­ing to sell online ads.

“Be patient.” I’d like to quote this point in full. Bear with me. (I will add proper punc­tu­a­tion to this one because I don’t think I can type it out any other way.):

If you’re like me, you’ve tried a dozen mod­els and attended a dozen sem­i­nars by dozens of Internet experts, and the only thing we all agree on is that none of us knows how to make this work for news­pa­pers. Sooner or later, some­one will fig­ure it out and, as Bear Bryant would say, I might not have the first suc­cess­ful news­pa­per Internet site, but I don’t have the third.

(Read this, on medi­oc­rity.)

Newspapers hes­i­tated back in the 1990s, think­ing that noth­ing could touch their infor­ma­tion monop­oly — let alone some upstart medium and its “twitchy lit­tle screens.” Many held out hope that the Web was a fad that would fail to hold the world’s inter­est. The “experts” chant­ing “adapt or die” were surely kooks. The Web couldn’t pos­si­bly rep­re­sent a rev­o­lu­tion in the way we think about and con­sume infor­ma­tion, news and the media in general.

Those news­pa­per own­ers who waited back in the 1990s are the same ones wait­ing still. Read this, which Chip Brown wrote for the American Journalism Review way back in 1999:

If news­pa­per exec­u­tives haven’t fully grasped the extent of changes in com­mu­ni­ca­tion or the oppor­tu­nity the Web rep­re­sents, then the story of online news­pa­per­ing is as much about cul­ture as busi­ness. Executives often seem hand­i­capped by an almost mythic fear that their Old Media fran­chises will be devoured by their dot-com off­spring. They for­get how much more pleas­ant it is to be eaten by your own child than by some­one else’s.

Judging by Mullen, the think­ing among news­pa­per exec­u­tives hasn’t changed much in the past 11 years.

Judging by Mullen, com­pet­ing for sec­ond place is just fine too.