Thursday, March 12, 2009

What's black & white and red all over??

Yep, you got it. The newspaper biz.

Today's roundup piece in the NYT coincided with one of my fave rituals, a Yale Club breakfast with Greg, a senior exec at the Financial Times. There was a lot to talk about this morning.

The opinions here are BobOnARoll's own, of course. But if you love great business journalism as I do, pick up a copy of the FT every day. That, plus my weekly Economist gives me everything I need. (End of commercial)

The Times piece and graphic showing the decline in metro daily newspaper circulation were informative but not explanatory. This media crisis is, along with the collapse of the auto industry, an example of a self inflicted wound that I imagine will be studied in business schools for years to come. We did this to ourselves.

Local newspaper content stinks, by in large. The great newspaper brands are diluted with coverage of adopt a pet drives, celebrity spottings, and gardening tips.

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, when BobOnARoll began working in publishing, he was lucky enough to work for a guy who taught me how to price and promote editorial product to maximize revenue and net contribution from circulation. In the wake of the LIFE magazine shutdown and faced with rapidly escalating postal costs, the mission was recast--circulation growth could not be achieved at the expense of medium term profitability. Readers had to pay.

Since that time, the business has been turned on its head. Content has been dumbed down in newspapers and magazines, and this throw-away material has been discounted to a level at which readers have become accustomed to paying next to nothing for what they consume. All for the sake of juicing circulation growth so we could all profit from the advertising boom. The web exacerbated the problem. Only 18 months ago, the digerati were mad with unique visitor envy. Everything was about eyeballs as they assured us that no one would ever pay for web content.

Everything has changed.

Greg told me today that until recently the Washington Post charged 50 cents per copy at the newsstand. Have not surveyed other metro dailies but would be unsurprising to find a similar story. What the hell!?! In an era of $3 lattes....

The media business will continue to implode until we backtrack through years of disinvestment in content quality and compromising our brand equity with discount prices for readers. Yep, everyone wants a good deal, but we have dealt ourself a rotten hand.

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