I had a nice little post going for a while there. It was about newspapers and the new arrangement here in Detroit. It paused to aim a kick at some of the Free Press and Gannett spin artists fanning out to sell this crap sandwich, then settled in to what I consider the topic of the day: Online advertising, and the need for it to be properly priced and not such a ridiculous bargain.
Like I said, I was rattling away on it before I went to work last night, and had no browser crashes or anything else that might have scuttled it. But today, only the first sentence of it was to be found. Sigh. Autosave, I curse you. On the other hand, maybe that was a sign that we need to rethink our point. OK:
Why doesn’t online advertising cost more? That is all.
OK, here’s a bit more: The modern newspaper’s problem is not readership, it’s revenue. Let me see the hands of everyone who is reading more than their hometown papers these days. Leave your hand up if you feel you are, in general, better-informed about the world than you were, sayyy, 10 years ago. One of the Freep apologists yesterday trotted out the figure 500 million — that’s 2008 page views for the Detroit Media Partnership. Stipulated: Page views are the easy figure — a page loads and it counts as a view. In the olden days when nervous circulation managers held these meetings, they never talked about circulation (which was inevitably down), but readership, which always seemed to be just fine. The bonus joke for newsrooms was that this was sometimes paired with penetration, defined as circulation divided by households. Gannett used to have a graphic illustration that said satisfaction would increase with penetration, and don’t think a few million laughs weren’t had over that.
Anyhoo, in online measurements, “unique users” is the coin of the realm; it’s the beating-heart figure. But page views are significant, too, and at this point in the game I’m less concerned about whether the MotorCityMoms site will continue (groan: It will), as much as what, exactly, is being done to fairly price the ads that reach them. Every day I open my ink-on-paper, home-delivered, top-dollar-expensive New York Times and see the Tiffany’s ad at the top of page 3. They pay a premium for that spot; they’ve held it for years. I notice it. Its message sinks in. Its brand is underlined. I carry around these impressions on my personal hard drive. But online, it’s not going to pay the NYT much unless I click on it. I wonder how that’s justified. Advertising of all sorts is our cultural wallpaper, and just being able to identify certain business on the basis of their ads is considered a huge coup. If the Detroit papers are delivering the eyeballs, shouldn’t that count for something?
Heath Meriwether, a former Free Press editor and publisher, points out an important distinction in Editor & Publisher:
“The home delivery audience was the big prize. They were the committed audience, they had the money to spend and they were more involved in the community.”
Isn’t that interesting? All that traffic that bloggers claim they’re driving to news media websites? It’s crap, for the most part. A local tire store doesn’t care that people in San Diego are reading a story about the Pistons; they’re selling tires to people in southeast Michigan. Every night I read the Times of London, but it’s safe to say 90 percent of their advertising is wasted on me — I don’t even live on the same continent. On the other hand, I just checked their home page, and was served three ads for National City, an American bank. That’s IP sniffing for you. I can’t think of the last time I checked a Detroit News or Free Press website and was served an ad for a bakery down the street, offering two-for-one specials on Christmas fruitcake; are the ad staffs being trained to make such sales? Are they honestly and truly trying everything? Or is this just a desperation Hail Mary pass no one expects to succeed, to be followed in a few months by a sad news conference about an unforgiving business climate, etc.?
God, this is depressing. I wish I felt better about all of this. Among the facts weighing me down today: the Detroit newspaper partnership built a $170 million printing plant THREE YEARS AGO. Alan Mutter quotes an analyst with a sobering observation:
Radical as the restructuring may appear to be, the newspapers remain saddled with certain large and inescapable costs, said Alan Flaherty, a nationally recognized newspaper production expert.
“Nothing they do at this point can mitigate the cost of owning the $170 million (or maybe more) plant that they occupied in about 2005,” said Alan in an email. “At 7.5% interest and a 15-year life, the $170 million investment represents a weekly capital lease expense of $370,000.” That’s a bit less than $20 million per year.
(Fort Wayne Newspapers built a new press even more recently. The publisher at the time had a stock answer when asked about it: “This shows how committed we are to our future in Fort Wayne,” accompanied by a smile that showed frost at its edges. Then she left town. And yet the FWN package — one pathetic p.m., 75 percent of a somewhat more robust a.m. and the agency that produces both — sold for something like $90 million in 2006. Staggering.)
Clearly I know nothing about how this business works. If someone else does, enlighten me. For further reading, this Romenesko post has the most useful links.
You can tell I’m grumpy this morning. We had a snowstorm overnight and the blowers commenced around 5 a.m. Last night’s bedtime for yours truly: 1:30 a.m. The luck of the neighborhood blowers that I am not a violent person with a sniper rifle in my possession? Priceless.
Let’s try to leave on an high note. My Russian teacher forwarded me a set of pictures going around, called “only in Russia.” This one’s my favorite. The sign reads, “This is our favorite store.” At the moment, it’s mine, too.