There are three main points from the new report from the Readership Institute (via Romenesko):
- Your newspaper is doing a better job at retaining readers than you might expect;
- Your web site is doing a worse job at attracting readers than you might believe;
- Young readers ain’t reading newspapers, and they’re not likely to start.
Why aren’t they (print readership numbers) much worse, when the imminent demise of newspapers seems to be all we ever hear about? The short answer is that reading customers aren’t deserting newspapers at anything approaching the rate that advertising customers are. That is no consolation for newspaper company employees who are losing their jobs.
One word: Recession.
Come on people, the main issue facing newspapers right now is recession. Advertisers (to their own detriment) advertise less during a recession.
Yes, there is a ton of secular pressure on newspapers right now, especially in classifieds. We’ve lost billions of revenue to the Internet. But the problem there isn’t our lack of innovation, as some espouse. It’s actually something more basic than that: Sales.
We’ve been slow to motivate and migrate our classified sales staffs away from order takers to sales professionals. With greater competition, and disruptive competition, came the need for our staffs to actually sell. It’s not like they didn’t, and don’t, have value to to sell. Newspaper, even today, in their dominant local markets, are still the best classified buy around. But we haven’t done a very good job of telling our customers that. And to whatever degree our online products help, and they help a lot, we don’t do a very good job of telling our advertisers how much value we actually deliver.
The flip side of the good news about print readership is how poorly local newspaper web sites are performing and how poorly we’re doing with young readers.
These are trends that should have no immediate impact, but the long-term consequences are horrendous.
Which is why getting online right and doing it now, and being news organizations that can move comfortably between both (all?) worlds is essential.
Newspaper staffs can and should take comfort in the readership numbers for print, but if they go no further with their thinking than, “see, I told you this web stuff was bunk,” they they are threatening the very survival of the institutions they claim to love.
While maintaining our print products as vital center pieces of our communities is important, we must concentrate on developing online literacy, which means:
- Learning how to develop content that is web centric (writing more conversationally, adding more related material (databases, PDFs, video, links, etc.);
- Learning better how to present our material online for a culture that is more diverse in its interest, has more options and makes quicker mental jumps;
- Ensuring that our online products are differentiated from print products — the publication cycle is different, the mentality is different, the presentation is different, the push/pull aspect is different;
- Stop seeing online as a threat and embrace it as an opportunity — recession or not, print is not a growth medium; the growth opportunity, the chance to create new streams of revenue, and the opportunity to create great new journalistic products that serve present and future generations better is online;
There is so much we could be doing with our web sites that we’re not getting done. The online readership numbers should be really sobering to newsrooms across America — the strategy of repurposing newspaper journalism — no matter how great you think it is — just isn’t working.
Every time some curmudgeon complains about online news sites not making any money, I’ve had the same response I’ve had for years: That’s because we don’t have enough audience. It isn’t that online can’t make money — we make good money now, and deliver a great value to the advertisers who do buy our products now — it’s that we don’t have the loyal concentration of readership we need online to maximize the revenue opportunities that are there.
I believe as strongly as I ever have — going back to East County Online in 1995 — that local online community news sites can build audience and grow sustaining, high-dollar revenue. I still believe we can get there, but not if we don’t make the effort.
The fact that newspaper readership has remained relatively stable over recent years (the long-term trend isn’t hopeful), is good news — it buys us time to get online right. The caveat there, of course, is there are lots of disruptive competitors rising up to beat us to the punch. We don’t want to miss out because we’re too wedded to a print way of thinking. Let’s continue to push for differentiated online community news and information products.
UPDATE: Simon Owens expands the story by talking directly with Mary Nesbitt a little more.