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.