Going virtual becomes a reality

Diterbitkan: Khamis, 6 November 2008 12:00 AM

(Ubah saiz teks)

Online is much more efficient and cost-effective. It’s where the future lies. But the reality is more than 90% of a newspaper’s revenue still comes from the printed product.

Talk about newspapers going paperless has been around for some time. Some predict it will take 30 years, some 15, some 10. Who knows how long it will take before all the major papers of the world go completely digital?

But one leading paper in America has already decided to take that bold step. Late last month, The Christian Science Monitor announced its decision to stop publishing its print edition and will only be offering an Internet version. By April next year, The Monitor, a century-old newspaper with seven Pulitzer prizes, will be the first major American newspaper to do away with paper.

Why it’s doing so is not surprising. The Monitor’s print circulation has fallen from its peak of 223,000 in 1970 to about 50,000 currently. Meanwhile, its online traffic has been growing healthily. The newspaper gets about five million page-views per month, compared with about four million five years ago and a million 10 years ago.

It was one of the first papers in the world to go online, way back in 1995 when the Internet was still in its infancy.

Online readership is a growing trend. If you are youngish and you are reading this article, chances are you are viewing it online, on The Star’s website. Like many other young people, you probably consume your news via newspaper websites, via Google News or via RSS feeds.

Going online makes a lot of sense for The Monitor, whose readership base of 50,000 is scattered across the US. It’s obviously hard to reach them with physical products. Online is much more efficient and cost effective.

“Obviously, this is going to help with our costs, but it also enables us to put much more emphasis on the Web and basically put our reporting assets and our editorial assets where we think growth will be in a very tough industry in the future, which we think is the Web,” says The Monitor’s editor John Yemma, who was The Boston Globe’s multimedia editor before he moved to The Monitor in June.

The Monitor’s decision to go purely online comes at a time when the rest of the industry is going through tough times. The Los Angeles Times has just announced 75 editorial layoffs, while Time Inc is announcing layoffs ranging in the hundreds. Gannett, a big newspaper group will be laying off 10% of its newspaper staffers while Condé Nast is cutting Men’s Vogue down to a biannual.

The US Audit Bureau of Circulation revealed that in the first half of this year, sales of the top 500 American newspapers were down almost 5%. Even the mighty New York Times is badly hit, with its advertising revenue down 13% and its classifieds down 28% in September.

So, what’s a newspaper supposed to do in such tough times? The answer is to go digital or at least to enhance its web offering. It’s where the future lies.

The trend of emphasising online is there although The Monitor’s latest move is significant in that it is going completely online, and it is considered a leading paper.

Other, much smaller papers have enhanced their web offerings. For example, The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin, in April switched to publishing mainly on the Internet. The Daily Telegram of Superior, Wisconsin, announced in July that it would print only two issues a week and its website would become the primary source for daily news.

It will take some time before the rest of the industry follows suit in a big way. You are not going to see migration to the Internet en masse by the leading papers of the world, including in the US. Print will be around for a long time, but the importance of the online edition will grow.

The reason why print is hard to let go of is that the printed version is not just how news is traditionally delivered, it’s also how it’s paid for. Readers don’t typically know this but the selling price of the newspaper hardly pays for the cost of printing it.

The money is not made from the sale of the printed product but by the advertising that it carries. If newspapers were to try to make money from selling the printed product, they would have to charge many times more than the current cover price.

With a few very rare exceptions, like WSJ.com, which makes more money than its printed version, more than 90% of a typical American newspaper’s revenue still comes from the printed product. In Malaysia, that figure is even higher.

This situation holds true even if more people read the paper online than those who actually buy it. This is a legacy issue. Advertisers are willing to dish out tens of thousands of ringgit to buy a full page colour ad which they are not certain everyone will see but they are only willing to pay a few ringgit for every thousand pages viewed by readers.

So, you won’t see any noticeable de-emphasis on print any time soon, although I would be surprised if I don’t see an increased emphasis on online and mobile endeavours by newspaper organisations.

They can and should enhance their digital offerings without downsizing their print offerings – at least in the short term. When online advertising reaches a stage where it becomes a major income earner for the newspaper, that’s when they can start looking at scaling down print.

It will take some time. Mark Potts, a famous media blogger, estimates that American newspapers’ online revenue will surpass their print ad revenue only by 2018. That’s 10 years away! And that’s in the US! Still, the writing is on the wall ... or rather, on the screen. It’s time to go virtual.

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