Saturday, June 16, 2012

Smarter than Newhouse

Posted By on Sat, Jun 16, 2012 at 9:00 AM

The following is a guest column by Jack Davis, a former newspaper reporter, editor and publisher who worked for the Times-Picayune Publishing Co. and the Chicago Tribune and in Virginia and Connecticut. He lives in New Orleans. The opinions are his own.

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Let’s stop badgering the Newhouse family for their unwelcome and possibly doomed plan to give up on our daily newspaper. And then let’s do something smarter.

The sentimental nagging won’t work. The Newhouses aren’t going to reverse the decision to leap from print to online publishing. They don’t share the widespread appraisal of their existing web presence NOLA.com as wholly inadequate, a rickety landing spot for so big a jump. They aren’t in the kind of financial desperation that would prompt them to sell to Tom Benson or John Georges and leave town. They obviously scoff that the civic types now pleading with them to desist don’t understand that print is going to die in the next few years anyway. They might have noticed that the protest rally last week to “Save the Picayune” looked remarkably futile and small, certainly not the kind of crowd that would come out if the Hornets needed saving.

They also noticed, more critically, that their major advertisers were not among the signers of the protest press releases – which included just one car dealer, one small grocery chain, one realtor, one furniture store stating a tepid preference for seven days of print. As national leaders in their business, they feel secure that no smart newspaper operator would try to start a competing daily or even truck in papers from Baton Rouge.

I haven’t seen their financials, of course, since the Newhouse folks keep that information close. But my years as a newspaper publisher and editor make me guess that the math behind this decision is pretty simple and compelling:

Cut 50 percent of manufacturing and delivery expenses by limiting newsprint, pressmen, trucks and carriers to only three days a week. Retain perhaps 75 percent of print advertising revenue, from the customers who already prefer the big days of the week – along with those who will find Wednesday, Friday and Sunday newly acceptable (like car dealers and Realtors moving from Saturday to Friday, for instance). That provides a much improved chance at the positive cash flow needed to keep this enterprise afloat while it changes.

The Newhouses are trying to leap off the death spiral that newspaper owners have been conscious of riding since the 21st century started. Readers go away, to information in other media; advertisers pay less for that smaller audience and also find new non-print ways to drive sales; the publisher cuts reporters and pages and resources; more readers go away; and down and down. The Newhouses know that cutting expenses every year to match the revenue decline will make them broke and out of business in less than a decade.

Before that happens, they understandably reasoned, let’s try something new and bold. We want to stay in the media business. We love it. So let’s take one of our metro papers and see if we can go to the digital distribution before it’s forced on us. We could try it in our Portland Oregonian or in Cleveland or Newark, but we just need one laboratory. Why not New Orleans? If we can make it work there, we’ll do the same elsewhere. If not, we’ll try something else at the other papers.

This experiment was bound to happen in some substantial American market sooner or later. New Orleanians don’t need to feel insulted that they were deemed less deserving than other cities for seven-day doorstop delivery. They aren’t being tagged as “a minor-league city,” to use the mayor’s words. We just drew the short straw, and became the test tube.

This is a rare opportunity for New Orleans to lead the nation, to be the pioneer in digital transformation. Newspaper owners and media investors everywhere will be watching this closely, ready to imitate if it works.
The problem is that it probably won’t work well.

Websites and other online vehicles that successfully replace the newspaper will be run by creative, quick, adroit, customer-savvy, bold operators. The replacements will be dazzlingly functional and intelligently organized and attractively dynamic. The web has some places like this, not many of them newspaper sites. Nola.com and its counterparts in other Newhouse cities are among the clunkiest and most opaque in the business. Unfortunately, the owners don’t seem to know that: Just before the world learned of their digital leap, they’d been bragging about improvements to nola.com, which seem not to have produced many “likes.” Maybe they have time before the autumn leap to make dramatic changes, but it will be difficult.

Surprised when other media (The New York Times, Gambit, Twitter, Facebook) carried news of the Great Leap long before they themselves were ready to go public, the Newhouses missed the opportunity to win over their natural allies in government and business and entertainment. They also allowed resentments and anger to grow across the region: as is the case with many newspapers, readers don’t say they love you until you’re dying. These huge lapses may have seriously devalued the goodwill the new venture will need. They may have also encouraged competitors.

Which is where the good might come out of this.

New Orleans collectively should expect to be the showcase of the new news media. We might lose a daily newspaper, and its website might not be able to carry the weight, but remember what we’ve been bragging about the last couple of years. We say we are home for a new wave of smart young entrepreneurs, a launching pad for tech companies. (Many of the signers of protests about the Picayune have been bragging about this in recent years.) Let’s give the innovators their big chance, and a big welcome. Let’s challenge them — and others like them who could bring their talents to the city – to show that New Orleans is a leader in technologically enabled breakthroughs in community reporting, investigative journalism, cultural richness, happy advertisers, accountable public officials.

They can join the rapidly maturing experimenters in the market – The Lens, which takes education policy seriously and does selective investigative reporting; Uptown Messenger, which relies on advertising after attracting an audience with good reporting on urban design, education, culture and crime Uptown; Gambit, the hefty print weekly and its expandable, active and solid website; nolavie.com, launching its broadly construed cultural coverage from the nola.com pad; NolaDefender.com and many other lively blogs; the TV and radio stations, including WWNO-FM, which can seize on this opportunity to hire the discarded Picayune talent and cater to hungry news consumers. Maybe even NOLA.com and the Newhouses can be part of this, can rise to the occasion, especially if they’re guided by the smart editors who made the Picayune so good in the first years after Katrina.

On top of this lively multitude of choices, and more to come, we will have room for an aggregator: a master-index website that tells us throughout the day what stories have broken on all of these local websites – a definitive array of smartly edited links to important headlines and meaningful features – a collective, constantly changing front page for all the New Orleans websites. That’s a great business opportunity for somebody.

Let’s stop being annoyed or embarrassed by The Times-Picayune’s strategic collapse, and start promoting that we’re the first city in America that has the replacement for the daily newspaper.

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