Here's a statement in the Columbia Journalism Review that has an alarm quotient equal to an orange alert from the Department of Homeland Security: "At stake is nothing less than the future of print journalism."
Newspapers companies, having watched classified advertisers take more and more of their trade to less expensive and more effective Web companies such as Monster.com and Autotrader.com, are now seeing their deepest readership fear come true - would-be print subscribers gobbling up newspaper content for free on the Internet.
Although a study last summer by Belden Associates concluded that online readership does not cannibalize print sales, Greg Harmon of Belden did tell Editor & Publisher that growing web readership might eventually "negatively affect single-copy print sales."
Whatever short-term comfort publishers took from those findings gave way to further unease when comScore reported that the audience for newspaper sites is growing far more rapidly than Internet use as a whole. And yet another study, this by Forrester Research, found that "consumers with six years of Web experience are three times more likely than Internet newcomers to decrease their print newspaper reading," according to CJR, which quotes a comScore executive saying, "Newspaper circulation has been declining for years, and you see an online segment with great increases. One plus one equals two."
It all adds up to a rush by publishers away from free Internet content and toward online subscriptions - and toward continued denial of the underlying problem, which is that too many potential print subscribers simply don't view the product as worth paying for.
The ever cogent MediaSavvy [thanks for the pointers] cites a report by Henry Copeland, a European online publishing consultant, that the New York Times' web site "has sold more than 160,000 print subscriptions over the last two years and is the paper's #1 source of subscriptions" even though NYTimes.com now has more daily readers than the newspaper itself.
In other words, the quality of the reporting on NYTimes.com compels online readers to become print subscribers.
MediaSavvy also states that "as monopolists accustomed to 25% profit margins, newspaper publishers are intellectually ill-equipped to publish on the Internet." In this case, although not in so many words, even Neil Budde, founder of the Wall Street Journal Online and therefore the hero of the paid-content movement, agrees.
In an interview, Budde tells PaidContent: "I actually think right now too many people are making a rush towards the subscription model because everybody says now is the time they should go for that. That's probably as bad for some people as starting off with the free model was back then. It really needs to be much more specific to the circumstances of the particular company, product, and competition."
In other words, publishers need something more to sell than just the contents of the daily newspaper - something unique, market-oriented and customer-focused.
Quality sells. But, then again, in the monopolies most newspapers have enjoyed for decades mediocre has sold almost as well. The Internet flattens that information hierarchy by amplifying the choices available to readers, who are showing the willingness to pay for the good stuff (the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times crossword) and read the rest for free.
The Poynter Institute this week is sponsoring a conference on Journalism & Business Values. James Naughton, Poynter's president, defined the conference's goal in his opening remarks: "What we hope to attain in the next day or so is a more reasoned dialogue about why journalism matters to the business and why business matters to the journalism."
Journalists shouldn't have to learn why business matters - in 1975 there were 1,756 daily newspapers in the United States; in 2001 there were 1,468, 16 percent fewer.
Quality sells. Relevance matters. The real lesson both the newsroom and the boardroom need to learn is that, in the age of the 24-hour scroll, the micro-fragmentation of electronic media, and the constant clamor for a news consumer's attention by everyone from the New York Times to yours truly, all that's left is the journalism.
Columbia Journalism Review Why Information Will No Longer Be Free
PaidContent Interview with Neil Budde
Poynter Institute Journalism & Business Values
Pressflex NYTimes.com daily users top parent's print circulation