2.02.2009

A voice of reason in newspaper/online debate

Allan Mutter offers the first analysis in the debate about whether newspapers could stop printing on paper that actually makes sense. Others, always unfathomably gleeful about the notion of the news no longer coming on paper, suggest that simply shutting off the presses is a logical solution to financial woes. Get rid of the cost of paper, printing and distribution, and you cut the business to its core, they argue. Cedar Rapids Gazette Editor Steve Buttry asserts that subscribers are paying for those costs with their subscriptions, not the news (thus ignoring the fact that they might also be paying for convenience or because they prefer that method of news delivery).

Jeff Jarvis raised interesting if flawed points in a December post about The Los Angeles Times when he took news that its online operation made enough to cover the editorial payroll as an indication that the Times could cease printing and go online only. What he ignores, of course, is that:

--the paper makes exponentially more on the paper product, and thus would lose those revenues,
--there are dozens (in this case) hundreds of people who sell and create those ads, as well as those who maintain the web site, none of whose salaries are included in this computation,
--no discussion of benefits or other costs is included in the discussion,
--any such move means drastic cuts in budgets and staffing. Preach all you want about crowdsourcing and the democratization of news, but coverage will suffer, at least in the short term.
--people might actually prefer the print product.

Mutter explores these (save for the last, which no one seems to care about) in his post. The most direct line, which I'm amazed even needs to be stated at this point, is this:

"But we are a long way from seeing a publisher make the proactive decision to pull the plug on a profitable print-on-paper operation. That’s because pulling the plug is not a decision a rational publisher can afford to make."
Those with no stake in the outcome but who have learned that being loud and cantankerous can double for veracity in the blogosphere will argue otherwise, but Mutter is exactly right.

Print may well go away as we move to online-only formats, but it won't happen any time soon. And I realize that the fact that I prefer to read a newspaper at the breakfast table with my family rather than sit by myself in the office scanning an RSS feed makes me some sort of out-of-step dinosaur, but as long as there are a few of us left, newspapers will need to cater to us if they hope to earn advertising revenue. If Jarvis got what he wanted and newspapers all stopped printing on paper tomorrow, most of those companies would be out of business by the end of the month.

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