Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pew report notes key weaknesses

March 5 study highlights obstacles to change

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
I have been dying for the time over the past week to sit down to write about the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism report about the newspaper industry’s search for a new business model. The report was released Monday and was the subject of a couple of excellent analyses by writers Rick Edmonds and Andrew Beaujon.

But I had a full week with BocaJump, a hyperlocal website for which I write about Elgin City Hall, plus several unexpected job interviews — three by phone, a follow-up one in person — as well as a daylong class Friday on building websites with WordPress. In short, I had short lulls between this and that to read up on the Project for Excellence in Journalism report but had no time to write about it — until Saturday night.

I think now the delay was a good thing. I do not like to neglect my blog, especially when there is something as pithy to write about as this report. But the delay gave me more time to digest what I had taken in as I read this report, which was based on data from six companies representing 38 newspapers, complemented by interviews with executives from seven other newspaper companies that chose not to share their data. The companies, whether providing data or interviews with executives, were assured of anonymity by the report’s authors.

There were two aspects to the report that I found most intriguing, largely because I have blogged about them to greater or lesser degrees.

Institutional lethargy

The first, as written about by’s Edmonds, was that industry executives recognize there is a divide between the printed newspaper and the digital product. First, there is an institutional lethargy, if you will, that is the result of an industry which long has thrived as the only game in town. As a result, workers at all levels are entrenched in longstanding traditions of how their roles in the industry function.

The news executives interviewed for the study freely admitted the problem is prevalent from the newsroom to the boardroom to the advertising department, and that making cultural change is a difficult process — and largely independent of who is in charge.

I have written before that change is messy, often a painful, difficult process. People who are passionate about what they do strive to arrive at the best practices for their craft. They arrive at protocols geared toward producing the best product possible in a tight, deadline-driven environment. One of the buzzword terms used to describe such procedures in many industries today is “best practices.” When you have spent your career aspiring to develop or learn those best practices, it can be very difficult to let those go or adjust them to accommodate something new — in this case, digital technology.

I understand this — I have lived and worked through it. Some things are easy to let go — a computer system that crashes frequently, for example, because the technology is outdated and no longer is supported by the manufacturer. I have been trained on a bunch of computer systems over the years, and each time I have welcome the change, know the new system would have something better, new bells and whistles to make my job more efficient and remove some little annoyances.

Yet, even so, each time there would be twinges of regret. One person might miss the preset search queries the last system had. Another might be annoyed that the keyboard shortcuts for accomplishing various tasks had changed. Me? I never was too thrilled about the increasingly required use of the mouse (go ahead Julia, Wendy, Tara and Supriya — you’re entitled to laugh). But my earlier background trained me that speed required having both hands on the keyboard. As a result, I learned keyboard shortcuts that helped me to keep the use of the mouse, when it came along, to a minimum. But, as time progressed and computer capabilities increased, there were fewer and fewer options for keyboard shortcuts — and an increasing need for reliance on the mouse.

Where’s the money?

Hand in hand with this cultural inertia is a topic which has been the subject of an ongoing debate in the last newsroom where I worked. But it also is a question with which many in the profession have struggled: How can the industry be so intent on the move toward digital when the lion’s share of its revenue continues to come from the printed newspaper?

That’s a legitimate question to ask and represents a paradox, the report states.

But there is a compelling response to that question that is the subject of an article by Poynter’s Beaujon. In a way, this particular information should come as little or no surprise in the industry, although the depth of the disparity between digital and print revenues is of a scope that had my eyes popping.

Beaujon notes that for every $1 newspapers are taking in from digital advertising, they’re bringing in $11 in print advertising — which is why many journalists for years have questioned the wisdom of focusing so much on the Internet.

Yet, the report itself points out, that for every $1 gained from digital advertising — a gain is growth, mind you — the print side of the business loses $7. The numbers offer a jarring glimpse of the spiral in which the industry exists, and ought to resolve the question about why the emphasis on the digital product has to be a priority.

Even so, the latter figures point right back to the paradox. Most of the industry’s revenues continue to arrive from print, which then becomes a huge temptation to the publishers and even to ad reps who likely see a greater commission from print ads than from digital ones. Why waste time selling digital when there remains a more immediate and larger payback from print ads?

That, ultimately, points back to strategy: If the institution is intent on surviving for today, it will, although it risks survival tomorrow. I’d compared it to a farmer who harvests his crops and sells them, ending the season flush with cash. Yet, he has kept back no portion of that crop to plant in the coming season.

The wiser move would be to harvest the crop, set aside that needed to sow the fields in the spring, and sell the rest. For the newspaper industry, that translates into diverting some energy from print to digital advertising with the intent of harvesting that crop as it matures further down the road.

The greater question at this juncture, however, is has the industry already cashed in the entire crop so repeatedly in recent years that it has little to no hope of future harvests?

That remains to be seen.