Thursday, March 03, 2005
"Print is Dead" says Sports Illustrated's President
The quote is in a Washington Post article that can be accessed at http://www.centredaily.com/mld/centredaily/business/11003199.htm . It begins with "The venerable newspaper is in trouble. Under sustained assault from cable television, the Internet, all-news radio and lifestyles so busy they leave little time for the daily paper, the industry is struggling to remake itself.
Papers are conducting exhaustive surveys to find out what readers want. They are launching new sections, beefing up Web sites and spinning off free community papers and commuter giveaways in hopes of widening their audience. They even are trying to change the very language of the industry, asking advertisers and investors to dwell less on 'circulation' -- how many papers are sold -- and more on 'readership,' or the number of people exposed to a paper's journalism wherever it appears, in print, on the Web or over the air.
The changes come as circulation totals have eroded steadily for nearly two decades and as newspapers no longer play the central role in daily life they once did. Newspaper executives argue that an emphasis on readership better reflects what newspaper companies are becoming -- multidimensional media conglomerates with growing Internet sites and stakes in television, radio, magazines and other businesses."
There are a few things that worry me here. First, though I made my living as a researcher, I knew the limitations of research. Doing research on what readers want can often lead to mundane, boring products. When Columbia Pictures was owned by Coca-Cola, they attempted to do research about what movies people wanted, with disastrous results. Shortly thereafter, Kevin Costner's "Dances with Wolves" became a big success. What moviegoer would have told a researcher "I want a movie that's longer than normal, with subtitles, about depressing events around settlers moving west and trampling native American lands. And stick killing Custer in there, too." No movie research would have uncovered last year's "Passion of the Christ." Yes, research would have told you to make a movie in a dead language, with some subtitles, and beastly Roman soldiers whipping a man, mercilessly.
Art and leadership are not so far apart, and the best leaders look at research for what it is: research describes the business battlefield at a moment in time and tells you what conditions you will have to change to reach your objectives. It never tells you what decisions to make. It may imply how decisions might be received, so a leader would know what they would have to deal with in their process of leading. Research will not play an important role in saving the newspaper. Innovation and experimentation will. Research will help them understand if the changes they are making are working and to what degree.
I also found the idea of altering the way they are measured to be amusing. Nice try. Over the last year, circulation data of newspapers and magazines came into serious question. Now they want their advertisers to switch to the more nebulous "readership" which means a faithful leap into research about readership habits is added to the process. Circulation should have been rock solid. Ad buyers are supposed to believe readership data that are softer than what was recently exposed as mushy at best?
Newspaper owners have seen these changes coming for a long time, and have been active investors in other media. Whether or not the newspaper remains important is for the marketplace to decide, but they've made their bets elsewhere. Sometimes I think they're just tweaking things with their print products and trying to milk them as long as they can. Cows make milk only when they are being fed. Too often the phrase "milking the business" refers to businesses in which no further investments will be made. Gotta feed the cow now and then.
There will be a problem for all legacy media transitioning to electronic delivery, and that is that they are currently paid for advertising delivered, not advertising served. What that means is a publisher has scalability on their side. They can make their magazine or newspaper almost as big as they want, and still collect the same fees per page. Sure there are placement premiums, like inside cover, or back cover, but they are not in the same range as the issues raised by new media.
In an electronic environment, you are limited to one page, the landing screen, and then the viewer goes to other places on the site. These are always lesser amounts of clicks and views than the home page. It cannot be guaranteed that any ads will be seen in the same volume in the same way that a print version can guarantee that an ad will be delivered. Print products are not paid on the basis of ads viewed, but on the Internet they are. Your home page is your home page. This difference in the nature of revenue ultimately undermines the fixed cost structures of publishers, which is why I am far more bullish about small publishers, who don't have that infrastructure holding them back.
The article is quite good, and I highly recommend it. Catch it before the link is turned off.
*** Look at the Washington Post's survey of Internet users and their sources for news http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/marketing/presentation/nielsen/content/frame.htm