(Related post: Slaughtering the Cows a Bit Too Early)
A moment of silence, please. Many publishers and editors might like to take the meditative approach of the Christian Science Monitor leadership in moving from mainly print/a little digital to mainly digital/a little print today. Said Managing Publisher Jonathan Wells in a nine-minute video on the Monitor site, describing the publication's changes:
"Everything that has brought us to this point has been a matter of deep reflection, prayer and consideration."
Today, the venerable 100-year old publication announced it was flipping the switch, effective next April. And, yes, while the Monitor is quite different than its newsprint peers, that flip shouldn't be dismissed as an aberration.
Publishers can flip that switch, or, as many are contemplating, ease it increasingly from one position to another. It's no longer a theoretical question: by 2015, I believe we'll be living in a mainly digital/a little print world. There are six long years between now and then and the transition means everything to the readers, the journalists and the apparently reinvigorated democracy unfolding before us.
The most important thing in the flip-switching: understanding that it is the journalism created and not the print medium that we must hold onto. Much lip-service has been paid to the journalism, but publishers' reactions to the current crisis often appear scattershot, as they take their eyes off the prize.
Let's look at the Monitor's differences with most daily papers:
- It gets a large percentage of revenue from subscribers. Most US dailies get about 20% of their revenues from circulation. It will reduce its $210 annual subscription charge (for 5 papers a week) to $89 (for a single weekly edition).
- It gets a subsidy from the Christian Science Church. That subsidy amounts to $12.1 million this year. One aim of the switch: reducing that subsidy to $3.7 million in 2013.
The Monitor's degree of subscription support, and we'd believe given the loyalty of its readership, much of that will continue, provides a big support in an online transition. It is the subsidy though that really gets my attention.
Let's figure the average Monitor newsroom staffer costs $70,000 annually, including benefits, maybe high or low. That would be a $7 million tab. Its subsidy more than pays the newsroom cost at this point. (Note: the Monitor is planning a "modest reduction" in its newsroom staff.)
It's that subsidy that may make the big difference in the Monitor's transition, as it immediately cuts $4 million in costs and loses $5 million in print revenues.
It's that word -- subsidy -- that for-profit publishers of course shy away from, but one that's key to this question of switch-flipping. Today, dailies can look at similar arithmetic to the Monitor's: How much do I save in physical and distribution costs in greatly reducing the print product (Monday?; Tuesday? and more)? How much do I forsake in print revenue? How much can I really gain in online ad revenue how quickly?
- Written on the back of the envelope or large on a whiteboard, the
answer is the same: it doesn't come close to working. Last year, about
92% of all newspaper revenues came from print. That number is declining
some, as print ad revenues tank, but no US publisher can claim more
than 13% digitally-based revenues today. Newspaper companies have
simply failed to make a transition fast enough.
Within the arithmetic, publishers cannot maintain anything close to the size of newsrooms (vital content creation going forward) or size of their ad staffs (vital sales connections as local online-only revenue becomes big and real). What would be needed to flip the switch: subsidy.
Sure, we can call it investment, deferment of profits, whatever. But really, what we're saying is stopgap funding is needed to let journalism companies get from here to there, from this mainly print today to the mainly digital tomorrow. The conversation, amid the rising newsroom toll, has got to move to where that funding can come from. Otherwise, the circulation declines we saw earlier this week will gain even more velocity.
It's useful to step back from the Monitor example for a moment and compare the Monitor, for instance, to The Politico.
We have just witnessed the most involving Presidential campaign in recent history. I scarcely recall hearing the Monitor noted in the zeitgeist. The Politico -- about 98 years younger than the Monitor -- is ubiquitous. It is a digital mainly/little print (Politico in Print) approach is a so-far winning one. Combine scoop reporting with mastery of the cable talkingheadosphere with a new syndication/ad network program, and we see a company that grasps the media landscape that offers opportunity, opportunity and more opportunity. (And has subsidy funding -- Allbritton Company -- to make it all work.) New journalistic media compared to old journalistic media. Much easier to start out with the switch in the right position, then agonize over its flipping.
There's also something here about mass and niche. As Robert MacMillan points out in his Reuters piece, "time has not been kind to the Monitor. Forty years ago, the paper boasted more than 223,000 subscribers....About 52,200 mostly U.S. subscribers pay for the Monitor today." There's a learning, and an admonition in that. Move with the times, or serve increasingly narrow, and smaller, audiences. Still another good lesson for all embattled news publishers.