Is a meal for a special occasion worth hundreds of dollars?
This week the conservative daily Washington Examiner announced a shift in its business model, moving from a daily to weekly print edition. The Examiner’s move follows other big changes for local media, including The Washington Post’s announcement that a paywall is coming soon for its most frequent online readers. Kojo examines the changes in the local media scene and looks ahead to how readers will get community news amid the upheaval.
- Mark Jurkowitz Associate Director, Project for Excellence in Journalism; former ombudsman of The Boston Globe.
MR. KOJO NNAMDI…decision makers. The Examiner's demise is particularly notable because it had filled a niche, reporting local news to the suburbs, but like many alternative publications, including the Boston Phoenix, which goes dark this week, its business model didn't hold up. So what do these changes mean for local readers, especially as bigger players, like the Washington Post, demand more of our money to read the news?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIf you have opinions or comments about this you can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Joining us by phone is Mark Jurkowitz. He is associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. He's also a former press critic and author of the Boston Phoenix's Don't Quote Me column. Mark Jurkowitz, good to talk you again.
MR. MARK JURKOWITZThanks, Kojo. Good to be with you.
NNAMDIMark, the Examiner here was known for two things, its local coverage and its conservative bent, especially on national politics. What kind of loss do you feel this is for local readers, especially for local readers in the suburbs?
JURKOWITZWell, you know, basically I think that, you know, it's, A, a loss in the local news area. And I think it's also indicative of sort of the broader trends that we're seeing in the journalism world. You know, we have seen in the last year or so -- and most notably in New Orleans, you know, more and more newspapers going to a reduced publication schedule. Now, for some of these dailies, like the Times-Picayune, it was three days a week.
JURKOWITZThis is more of a complete remaking of the editorial brand, I think, to some degree, of the Examiner. And I think the important thing is that essentially now they see themselves going forward as a web-based business. And so, you know, they will still have a voice in the marketplace, but they are clearly shifting to a new business model, which I think has a lot to do with the costs of legacy news production these days.
NNAMDIThe Examiner was especially noted for its coverage of Montgomery County and Washington, D.C. It was, however, daily. It was print and it was free. Does its demise, Mark, simply reinforce the fact that this business model just doesn't work anymore?
JURKOWITZWell, you know, it's interesting. Obviously, we know what's happened in the newspaper industry and we know how difficult it's been. And to some degree, because advertising has diminished so much over the years in newspaper, this is a newspaper that didn't even generate any circulation revenue. So that obviously damaged the business model there. But it's interesting. You know, we just published our new state of the media report this week.
JURKOWITZAnd while we are seeing more papers go to a reduced publication schedule, we're also finding among a number of newspapers a realization, and might be a grudging one at that, that the print product is probably going to have to be around longer than people anticipated, primarily because digital advertising revenue has been so slow to materialize in a big way. So that even for newspapers like the Washington Post or others, the print revenue, even with this diminished advertising, is pulling the overwhelming share of the freight, about 85 percent of the overall revenue.
JURKOWITZSo at the same time this happening in the Examiner world, in other aspects of the newspaper industry there's a greater sense that, you know, we're going to still need these print dollars for awhile.
NNAMDIThe Examiner will continue its examiner.com and redalertpolitics.com, a site geared to right of center audiences. Many listeners might be familiar with the Examiner only because it was one of those print publications dumped unrequested at their doorsteps in the morning. Does that approach, in your view, tend to attract or alienate readers, Mark?
JURKOWITZI think it's a difficult approach to go with. And, again, the issue here really is, you know, is advertising revenue. Now, obviously, not circulation revenue. So, you know, can you convince advertisers, for example, that you're reaching a significant number of influential consumers by dropping a newspaper at their doorstep, something that they're not voluntarily taking? And, you know, that has been a theory for a number of newspapers over the years, but I think it's becoming an increasingly hard case to make for advertisers who are, frankly, finding so many ways other than news to be able to deliver their message to people.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're talking with Mark Jurkowitz. He is associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and a former press critic and author of the Boston Phoenix's Don't Quote Me column. 800-433-8850. Where do you get your local news? Do you read the free daily papers thrown on your doorstep in the morning or do you toss them? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIThe Examiner's news follows the demise this week of the Boston Phoenix, which has particular meaning for you. You wrote the paper's Don't Quote Me column for eight years. Is it too hasty to declare the end of the alternative press?
JURKOWITZWell, I think it's a little too hasty to declare -- and you're right. I spent eight years of my career there. I have a very warm attachment to the place. For a long time it was thought that alternative news weeklies, for example the Washington paper, the Phoenix, the Village Voice, so some of the more notable ones, we're somewhat insulated from the bigger problems that were affecting the newspaper industry for a couple of reasons.
JURKOWITZNumber one they were niche publications. They didn't try and be a general interest newspaper publication. And second, frankly, they have very lean and mean budgets. You know, they...
JURKOWITZThey were not famous for having a lot of overhead. What we are seeing now, I think, and particularly in larger cities, is that these newspapers are clearly struggling now to create their own new business model. You know when you really think of it, the Phoenix was one of the granddaddies of the alternative movement. It started 47 years ago and you had this almost harmonic convergence at the time of, you know, a cultural revolution in America and the peaking of the antiwar movement and the baby boom generation.
JURKOWITZWho all came together at the same moment and created this sort of ready-made market for the Village Voice and the Phoenix and papers like that. And I think it's been very hard to sort of replicate that kind of a constituency going forward. The big issue for these papers, as we're finding for the industry in general, is how do you monetize the digital eyeballs? And...
JURKOWITZ...in many respects, I think that a lot of these papers are behind their mainstream brethren in trying to at least build up those digital dimes on the advertising side and on the revenue side. Where we're seeing more success in the alternative news industry is in smaller communities where there's less competition from other media. And those papers tend to be healthier, but the big ones are feeling it. And I know the publisher of the Phoenix quite well.
JURKOWITZIt's always been a labor of love for him. So the fact that he really sort of, you know, sold it and shuttered it this week I can guarantee you was a decision (unintelligible).
NNAMDIWell, Mark, just last fall the aforementioned owner of the Phoenix converted the paper to a glossy magazine just as the Examiner is doing right now and it still didn't work. What's the takeaway for the owners of the Examiner here?
JURKOWITZWell, I, you know, the Examiner, it's a little bit of difference. I mean, obviously, with the Phoenix, it really tried to sort of become more of a magazine in the end. And I guess the Examiner is going to do that in its approach. I don't know what the new Examiner is going to look like per se. It seems to me that obviously the Examiner's model is going to be sort of a web-based business model. And they may be, frankly, more sophisticated at being able to do that than the folks in the alternative world were.
JURKOWITZBut it does show you that, you know, and frankly, that's been a trend in the alternative media. There are a number of papers that have switched to the glossy model after years and years of kind of being that rough, hard, you know, broadsheet feel to it. And the truth is that those kind of changes don't usually save a business model that's in serious trouble.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Brian, in Alexandria, Va. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANYes. Thank you for taking my call. I'm actually one of those people who got the free paper dropped in my driveway. In our area it only came a few times a week. We got the Sunday, I think a Tuesday and a Thursday. So it was only three or four days a week. I didn't mind looking at it, although it was pretty obvious from the first time I saw it, it's a right-side bias. And one of the things that annoyed me is that -- I mean, I did look at it for just the general stuff and, you know, just the general cross section of news, but they have this thing on the Sunday, the bright bulbs of the week or the dim bulbs of the week.
BRIANTwo page where they -- and almost exclusively there was almost always a picture of President Obama on the dim bulb of the week side. I mean, I showed my wife one time. She didn't believe me. I said I picked up several weeks worth that we had just laying around and, like, every single one had his picture somewhere. So they're bias was pretty evident in the paper. So for that I won't exactly miss it, but just general, light -- it was a good paper to have around for lunch.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIBrian, since we're talking about the...
JURKOWITZ...print version of the Examiner, allow me to go first to Adam in Washington, D.C. Adam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ADAMHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. Just a quick comment. I also was one of these guys that got the Examiner for free. And I was frankly delighted to hear that they're going to stop the print so I could stop having to pick it out of my lawn and recycle it, you know, week after week after week. And my (unintelligible) was just that I could put no credibility into this thing that showed up unasked for. So it just felt propaganda-ish, just by its very delivery. So I think that was a real...
NNAMDIWell, but there are several other local newspapers delivered like that here, the Washington Current newspaper, the Washington Informer newspaper. They are dropped off at people's doorsteps.
NNAMDIAdam, do you think that by definition any paper that is dropped off free on your doorstep is probably junk?
ADAMJunk may be hard, but I do. It comes with such a higher threshold of suspicion to it. You know, rightly or wrongly, but just if someone comes up and hands me their information your radar is, I think, a much tuned higher frequency of, oh, what is this about?
NNAMDIMark Jurkowitz, we live in a culture in which people feel that anything that they get for free is suspicious?
JURKOWITZIt's got to cost something, right?
JURKOWITZYou know, frankly, that's what people in the newspaper industry have been arguing for a long time. You know, we need to make people pay for our content in the digital age. Of course we're not talking about a print vehicle. You know, when I started in the business, I worked for a total market circulation weekly newspaper that was very local that was mailed to every home in a couple of affluent communities in Massachusetts. I think that the model for those kinds of papers traditionally has been -- like the Gazette for example, which ends up on my lawn every week, you know, tends to be very, very hyper local.
JURKOWITZYou know, tends to fill a clearly obvious niche.
JURKOWITZSo that there's not a lot of ideology and it's really coverage of your local school board...
JURKOWITZ...of your neighborhood association of your downtown...
NNAMDIAnd that's the Current and the Informer, yes.
JURKOWITZ...you know, that you don't get. I think those have been the more successful models.
NNAMDIAdam, thank you very much for your call. And speaking of not appreciating what you do not pay for, news readers in our area might be feeling particularly squeezed since we also heard this week that the Washington Post will begin charging fees to frequent readers of its website. Are we reaching a point where news audiences are split in half, those who are willing to pay for the older, flagship publications and those who are left to surf for whatever's free on the web, Mark?
JURKOWITZWell, you know, the first thing that I'll say is that most of these kinds of deals, if you're paying for the older publication, you're going to get the web for free.
JURKOWITZLook, the Washington Post is actually pretty late to the party on this. We estimate now that there are about 450 American daily newspapers, which is about a third of all of them, that have now begun to start some kind of a digital paid subscription plan. They don't like the word paywalls. It has bad connotations. So we try not to use that. And I think, you know, for a long time in the newspaper industry there was a theological debate about does content need to be free online and that sort of thing.
JURKOWITZAnd frankly, when digital advertising revenue was growing at about 3 percent a year, and from a small pile to start out with, I think that news executives have realized that they've got to be able to develop some consumer revenue going forward for their product, if they're going to have a successful business model.
JURKOWITZProbably a lot of people are surprised that it took the Washington Post this long to do it. You know, there are obviously two big issues with any kind of media paywall. One is how many free visits will you get and two, what will the pricing be at? And I don't think they've developed a pricing plan yet. You know, generally speaking, these tend to be, you know, priced about at the same general area as the overall print newspaper subscription.
JURKOWITZAnd frankly, a lot of the success or failure of the industry, which is already beleaguered, is going to hinge on whether they can drum up enough, you know, digital circulation revenue. So the post is getting involved after years of really reluctance.
NNAMDIMark Jurkowitz is associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellent in Journalism. He's also a former press critic and author of the Boston Phoenix's Don't-Quote-Me column. Mark, thank you so much for joining us.
JURKOWITZPleasure, Kojo. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, Food Wednesday, the Passover tables of next week and how they are unique and how they are similar. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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