A few weeks ago, with the release of the latest revenue numbers from the Newspaper Association of America, we were treated with very Chicken Little-esque headlines including “Decline Of US Newspapers Accelerating“, “NAA Reveals Biggest Ad Revenue Plunge in More Than 50 Years ” and “NAA to newspapers: advertise this“.
Highlights of these articles included:
- “Total print advertising revenue in 2007 plunged 9.4% to $42 billion compared to 2006”
- “Signs that online growth rate is beginning to slow as well. Internet ad revenue in 2007 grew 18.8% to $3.2 billion compared to 2006.”
- “But an even more important reason why paper ads are declining is that their cost-to-value ratio is way out of whack with what advertisers can get elsewhere, particularly the Internet.”
One reader in Techcrunch (a former journalist) had an especially enlightening comment:
Across the board, three dynamics are pretty consistently hammering nails into the dailies’ collective coffin faster than might be occur otherwise:
* Despite talk about fundamental disruption in the business, there’s still an attitude that this is a storm to be ridden out rather than a complete sea change. Even when the folks at the top (owners, publishers) get it, there are many, many layers of upper and middle managers who don’t — and who are afraid of losing head count because that somehow diminishes their authority.
* Sales has been given increasing control of the organization. Mind you, sales are crucial — but it’s hard to find a group of folks less strategic than salespeople on commission.
* Too many lifers. When you get into key operational areas (marketing, product development, news management) you find a lot of people who’ve been in the daily news business their whole careers, which isn’t necessarily bad, but nor is it a hotbed of innovation. What’s more shocking is the number of people you run across who’ve been at the same paper for 15, 20 or 25 years.
Chris Anderson, Wired’s Editor-in-Chief, had a different take on things, one that I definitely agree with:
The truth is that the newspaper business is still a huge industry and will be around in one form or another for the rest of my life. That is not to dismiss the declines, but only to note that there’s still a lot of money there and what is required is strategic change, not giving up the ghost.
Growth industries are different from sunset industries, but in many cases the second category is larger (one example: the Yellow Pages is still a $16 billion business). Managing companies on the way up takes a different set of skills than milking them for cash on the way down (and often different people, witness the buyout guys), but fortunes are just as often made the second way.
What people forget is that industries peak at the top. Which is to say, at the very time that the first and second derivative people are writing off a business, those who can stand back and see the value still left in it can make a mint. Laugh at newspapers if you will, but I’ll bet some private equity firm out there is looking at the chart above and licking their chops.
- “Revenue at Canadian newspapers fell about one per cent last year”
- “The healthier financial picture in Canada reflects newspapers that are doing a better job maintaining their readership numbers”
- “a 30 per cent rise in online advertising revenue offsetting a two per cent drop on the print side.”
- “The ongoing challenge for newspaper companies (…) is to figure out how to use print content in digital form across various platforms such as home computers or mobile devices.”
- “The narrative about newspapers in the U.S. has been consistently negative in recent years, and that negativity has unduly influenced perceptions of the health of the newspaper industry in Canada”
What it means: as I don’t know the intricacies of both regions in the newspaper industry, it’s very difficult for me to comment on the why of those major differences. But it’s something we also see in the directory industry, where Canada (or by proxy Yellow Pages Group) usually experiences better financial results than its US peers. From a newspaper usage perspective, I do have one recent “focus group of one” anecdote though. Ever since I got my HTC Touch with a cheap unlimited data plan from Bell Mobility, I find myself reaching for the phone much more often than the printed newspaper when I have a few minutes during the day. Radio-Canada (the French CBC) has become my default source for mobile news as they refresh their feed very often, have tons of original content and have a mobile-specific version. If I (a self-proclaimed newspaper junkie) am reaching for the phone instead of the paper, it’s a sure sign that mobile will be next opportunity/challenge facing the newspaper industry and I think it will be the same in the directory business.