Last winter I began floating an idea, born of necessity, for a new approach to newspaper publishing. In a nutshell, I advised that we drastically shrink the newsprint product to a 32-page broadsheet or tabloid featuring only staff-written feature-length content and the best material available from other publications worldwide - a book review on the new Keynes bio from the Guardian, a Dutch urban-planning journal's take on the remarkable waterfront rejuvenation that is Chicago's Millennium Park.
And all of the "generic" news - the news developments of the day that everyone from CBC Radio to Yahoo makes available free to millions of consumers - would be shunted to the Web. It would still professional newspaper journalists editing that generic news, "ordering" it in importance in traditional newspaper style, segmenting it into traditional Life, Sports, Business and other sections. The generic news would still be refashioned by the newspaper's staff, adding local angles and content to make it as relevant to as possible to an audience in Indianapolis or Vancouver - something papers in those cities would have to do to make their flagship websites competitive with the same generic news as it appears on the dime-a-dozen news roundups made available by everyone from Google News to Yahoo to Sympatico to the BBC.
I learned that Arlen Spector, the longtime GOP U.S. Senator of Pennsylvania, had crossed the aisle to the Democrats - a stunner for any political junkie like me - from the widescreen TV tuned to CNN in my dentist's waiting room. I first learned of Magna International's interest in buying Opel-Vauxhall from my girlfriend, who got the news from one of those mini-TV sets in the elevators of downtown office buildings. Traditional papers now have a near-impossible job competing in breaking news. So maybe, in our print editions, we should just stop trying - and consuming tonnes of newsprint in the process.
Can we compete in breaking news online? You bet. We can do it better than anyone. Newspapers alone have the large staffs of professional journalists expert at rapid gathering of accurate information. We have graphic artists expert in making maps and compelling charts. We have the librarians expert in pulling together at short notice previous events of a related nature. We have columnists expert on terrorism, the use of steroids in sports, and the evolution of Harper's position of aboriginal rights and living conditions. On the Virginia Tech massacre, the Star's Web team was taking real-time news feeds from more than 100 sources within 15 minutes of the initial reports. Unlike our print edition, online we could get that information to our audience with maybe a 5-minute delay to ensure the veracity of it.
I confess this new model is as much a survival strategy as an exciting, drastic change in newspapering. And there are big risks. Chief among these is that online penetration rates in North America trail those in Europe and Asia. Many readers of North American newspapers still don't have a computer, much less an Internet provider. Many of these folks will not be satisfied with the new, vastly shrunken newsprint edition U propose for their daily paper.
The other big risk is how successfully can we "migrate" newspaper advertisers to the newspaper's bulked-up online edition? Even at the traditiional papers most successful in this regard, online ads represent only 8% or so of total ad revenue. There are plenty of ads now to be seen in newspaper online editions. But their price is heavily discounted. Newspapers still have a lot of work to do to convince traditional advertisers - as conservative as newspaper proprietors, if not more so - that their online ads are powerfully effective. Why effective? Because they can move, talk, and be hyperlinked direct to a faux car showroom where you can design your own vehicle. And perhaps most important, the ad client has more measurable assurance than ever in newspaper history that his or her ad is being read.
As I mentioned, survival. Every broadsheet page of newsprint, published 400,000 times, costs a fortune. Given the paucity of ad revenues in the current recession, every big city North American paper has had to focus on cost reduction. And so traditional dailies have shrunk. In particular, we are shrinking the all-important "newshole," the portion of space available to journalists after the ads have been placed. We have been significantly shrinking the newshole for the past two years, without lowering the subscription or cover price we charge readers. Thus we are, without acknowledging it, giving our readers less and less content and charging just as much for it. In 30 years of business journalism, I've never known of a business that succeeded by offering less value for money. Meanwhile, in our online products, these same newspapers give away their content. That too is unsustainable.
So squarely confronting the new reality, as Peter Drucker would call it, I propose that we provide a vastly enriched though must smaller print edition. Its virtue is that it provides "essential" content. The meaning of the news. What the events of the recent past tell us about how the future is likely to unfold. Articles that delve into the complexities of things, from our confused mission in Afghanistan to the root causes of the intolerably high rate of medical error in our hospitals.
The quality threshold would rise immeasurably. There's no shortage of content in the world, especially as it becomes McLuhan's global village with the advent of "citizen journalism" and the technology making that possible. In future, the print edition of your daily newspaper will provide only the best, most reasoned of this content. It will be a lean, efficient read, shorn of fluff and the 90% of content we currently provide that most readers have no use for. Bulky newspapers are clutter, difficult to "navigate," and long ago became an environmental issue for thousands of readers that traditional papers have lost on bulk alone. People actually feel guilty taking a subscription to a hefty paper, and then foolish when as so often happens they never get around to reading it. You can only take a pile of two weeks' unread papers out to the recycling about a dozen times before realizing it's time to cancel your subscription.
It goes without saying that the new 32-page paper, likely in tabloid or "Berliner" format, is more accessible and far less physically intimidating than the broadsheet model favoured by today's general-interest hometown dailies. Conversely, the space available on the Internet is infinite. The savviest operators of newspaper websites will be those who make the tremendous volume of content we provide there easiest to navigate. Who put an interpretive and local "spin" on generic news that makes it the preferred version of news that's otherwise available in hundreds of other places online, including now cellphones, and from free traditional broadcasting.
How this model marks a return to commercial viability is that we charge a stiff cover price for the new, smaller print edition - at least $2 and more like $3 the cost of a latte from Timothy's or Starbucks. I'm confident that in the case of a big-market daily, at least 50,000 customers will buy that product every day. Which means for the first time in modern newspaper publishing, circulation revenues will actually cover the cost of newsprint and distribution.
There will be advertising in this new print product. The cost per thousand (CPM) will rise dramatically. But the quality of that readership - as measured demographically in reader income and education levels and spending habits - will also be much higher. That will justify a high enough CPM to cover our other big expense, the compensation for those producing the editorial content.
The online edition, meanwhile, offers the advertiser a massive audience, and thus a dirt-cheap CPM. The interactivity, real-time reporting, citizen journalism, blogs, vlogs and intense local coverage offered online will make it a compelling read. Yet the editorial CPM - the number of journalists and technical and support staff required to serve every 1,000 readers - will plummet as ad revenues gradually rise to cover, and then surpass, the purely editorial cost of producing the online edition. No paper and ink costs for an online edition.
What I'm proposing, simply, is to vastly reduce print-edition costs while greatly improving the quality and essential-reading nature of the print product. And at the same time, greatly increasing the revenue potential of the online product as ad-buying practices gradually change to more fully embrace this new medium. Our much smaller new print edition will pay for itself and eventually become lucrative. Our online edition, with its comparatively low production costs, enormous audience "reach," and selection and editing of content to be powerfully relevant to a given audience, will see it, too, become lucrative in time.
It will not be an easy transition. But the transition already is underway. At most traditional papers, some of the best reading is to be found in their online editions. And everything in the print edition is made available online in any case. Should we charge readers for this online content, as the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times do? Probably not, since the online-pay model has been tried widely and usually failed.
There certainly may come a point at which we might charge for select high-value online offerings. But not now. For now, the nascent Web - and it is nascent compared with the 400-year-old history of newspaper publishing - remains a realm where users expect content to be free. One might as well try reversing the flow of Niagara Falls as change that reality. In 10 or 20 years, after online newspapers have proved their value to readers, and the N.A. Internet penetration rate exceeds 100%, we might then find ourselves reaping considerable subscription revenue from all or part of our online products.
It's gratifying to see that a few newspapers now are willing to at least contemplate a new way of newspapering. In Toronto, both the Star and Globe now are giving serious thought to this model, among other substantive alternatives to traditional newspapering.
Unfortuntely, though, the industry's current "silver bullet" is to form an ologopoly, championed by Rupert Murdoch, in which all major newspaper publishers agree to start charging for online content all at once. The players know they can't be the first to do so, risking an audience exodus. So Murdoch all year has been furiously signalling his peers that he's about to charge for online access to his general-interest New York Post (which he gets away with at his specialized Wall Street Journal). But this would drive at least half the audience of the Post, already a chronic loss-maker even before the advent of the Internet, to Mort Zuckerman's New York Daily News. Which means Mort and every other big-city publisher has to follow Murdoch lock-step or the thing doesn't work. Which is why, for all his pronoucements about paid online beginning early this year, Roop has yet to charge even for flagship Post features like the Page Six gossip round-up.
So, without disturbing the sleep of the anti-trust folks in Washington, Murdoch is burning up the phone lines with his peers, and overcoming his personal press-phobia to grant interviews to anyone willing to listen, in which he explains his idea for reversing the flow of Niagara Falls. Murdoch's transparently desperate gambit is notably lacking in the brash innovation we've long known Roop for. It's the strategy of a man running scared.
And of course it won't work. The Web leaks like a sieve. A paid-up subscriber to the Indianapolis Star will promptly re-post a supposedly "firewalled" article on his or her blog. And from there it will show up in a hundred free-access places on the Web before the sun rises again over the Indiana capital. The music industry, or what's left of it, learned its hard lesson about focusing on protecting its intellectual property rights - to the point of bringing charges against 13-year-old girls who improperly downloaded a copyrighted song. Result: the traditional music business, as we knew it from its origins in 1920s-era sheet-music publishers, is effectively dead.
How much better, I think, to offer readers a higher-quality print product and a higher-quality online product. And ask audiences and advertisers to pay a tariff that reflects genuine value for money.