Project 20/10: TTA rail derailed (#17)
DTV8 on Time Warner Cable to show traffic cams at rush hour

Project 20/10: Local media strains under economic pressures (#16)

Old_newspaper_racks There's an old gallows-humor joke about the apocryphal high-stress university where a dean tells assembled students to look to their left and right, and to realize that one of them won't be sitting there in a year.

This decade has seen much the same thing happen in local newspapers throughout the country.

And Durham, sadly, has been no exception. Only in the case of the Bull City, that mathematics works out to two out of three reporters gone. And circulation hasn't been much better. 

As the Independent Weekly's Fiona Morgan noted earlier this year (emphasis added):

The Durham daily has seen a 45 percent decline in print circulation since the sale. Today, The Herald-Sun's average daily circulation is 26,000 and its Sunday circulation is 29,600, according to Audit Bureau of Circulation reports for the period ending March 31, 2009, down from 48,000 daily and 52,000 Sunday for the same period in 2005. The News & Observer's print circulation declined 7 percent during that time.

Job losses have also been more severe in The Herald-Sun's newsroom. At the time of the takeover in January 2005, there were 87 newsroom employees. As of Monday, there were 29.

Which brings us to our sixteenth-ranked story of the past decade: the challenges facing local news -- most particularly the Herald-Sun, but reaching through the whole industry in a tough economic time. 

Yes, it is a national story, as acknowledged above. But the comparable data to Raleigh's News & Observer suggests that Durham has been hit particularly hard.

Maybe it's simply because the Herald-Sun had become a paper staffed -- as new editor Bob Ashley told the Indy after the family-run paper's buyout by Paxton Media -- at levels that didn't meet economic reality, and that reflected too heavy an overhead for the market size.

That certainly was the explanation for the quick exits shown to many long-time H-S'ers, including Jim Wise and Flo Johnston, both of whom would move over to the N&O's Durham operations. Altogether 43 staff were terminated on the day of the paper's purchase.

But one has to think that Paxton figured the cuts and new management they brought in on the day of the paper's acquisition would help to turn around the paper, which the Indy's reporting and interviews with the firm that helped market the publication's sale suggesting that any acquirer would bring it up to industry- and market-standards.

What wasn't known in 2005: just how bad the industry and market would get.

Online pressures contribute much of that pain. And, no, I'm not referring to blogs like BCR, whose impact -- I hope -- is on encouraging quality editorial coverage. (And most of the civic-minded, Durham-passionate regular readers of BCR read the Herald-Sun already.)

The real online pressure comes from Craigslist, Realtor.com, eBay, and all the plenty of ways that exist to market what you have for sale.

Those classified ad sections have become paper-thin in newspapers of late. And why not? If you can turn to an online option with none of the labor or distribution costs of a newspaper, why take out a classified ad?

And even as newspapers struggled to adapt to this reality in the late 2000s, they were hit with a second shock wave: the Great Recession, which killed for a time the home and automobile sales industries.

Which, regretfully for the fishwrap-makers, happened to be some of the biggest advertisers left for local papers.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Mind you, the Herald-Sun is not by any means alone in being impacted by these cuts.

The N&O staged a big expansion effort into Durham soon after Paxton's takeover of the Herald-Sun, growing its metro desk and pushing the biweekly Durham News local insert, available to subscribers and non-subscribers alike.

But the N&O got caught up in the corporate problems of its debt-ridden parent, McClatchy, a successful newspaper chain who saw the late 2000s as a really, really good time to buy up lots and lots of newspapers. Well, okay.

Soon the News & Observer retrenched from Durham. Durham editor (and LA Times veteran) Rob Waters was recalled from his outpost in the paper's Brightleaf Square newsroom to a core assignment, soon to depart the paper during cost-cutting. Matt Dees floated over to Durham Magazine, while Samiha Khanna ended up at the Independent Weekly.

The N&O's Durham newsroom? Gone, with the paper reporting on the entire western half of the Triangle from much-smaller digs on Franklin Street, in Chapel Hill. But hey, at least the N&O owns that building. No external cash flow, you know?

Cuts have also hit Media General, the owner of NBC 17 -- and, along with McClatchy, an apparent interested party in the Herald-Sun back in '05.

Even Capitol Broadcasting was reported to get into the belt-tightening act; the Goodmon family media and real estate/sports empire has long been conservatively managed, but even it was rumored to see financial retrenchment this year. (CBC's refusal to talk with an N&O reporter about the cuts led to much sniffing at N&O central, incidentally.)

No word on what's happened at WTVD/ABC 11, a Disney/ABC-O&O'ed station that seems to follow the Mouse's policy on tight control of what's happening inside their magical kingdom.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

But the impact on Durham has been most heavily felt in its hometown newspaper, the amalgamation of the old morning and afternoon papers, a fixture on Chapel Hill St. until its departure to South Square twenty years ago.

By the Indy's count, there were earlier this year just five metro reporters covering Durham. Matt Milliken moved from county government to schools, leaving Ray Gronberg alone on local government stories. Business reporter Monica Chen jumps from business to metro to features depending on the day's needs. Neil Offen, brought in as the metro editor from Chapel Hill, soon found himself reporting on a daily basis. 

John McCann files stories that are not columns.

And the drumbeat that's grown louder, particularly in the Indy's excellent coverage of the Herald-Sun's challenges, is the idea of a paper where fewer and fewer reporters are reporting more and more and more.

I've been harsh to the Herald-Sun at times. Last week's story on the paper's reporting of its relative impact on a Durham Rescue Mission toy drive led to some interesting email threads with local members of the fourth estate.

Let me be clear. I respect and value the work that professional journalists do in a community. They represent a tremendous community service, and I've long said that random citizens, be they bloggers, activists, listserve curmudgeons, or what-have-you are not a replacement for paid, professional newsgatherers.

That doesn't mean that I don't think that the model will change from today's print-centric newspapers. It will, even if we don't know what that looks like quite yet.

But implicit in that valuation of the work that local journalists do is the expectation that the work gets done. And there's a big problem I see in today's interregnum, between the fat-and-happy, possibly overstaffed papers of old, and today's super-lean, financially strapped Herald-Sun version.

And that problem is that I just don't think a paper at these kind of staffing levels can cover the investigative and entrepreneurial journalism stories that are the reasons why local newspapers need to exist in the first place.

There is an entire industry unseen to most consumers of local news. It was unseen by me until BCR reached a certain critical mass.

It is the industry of public relations, an industry whose ranks are ironically filled with a great number of former professional journalists. They're experts at sending out news releases, at presenting story ideas that are tailor-made for easy reporting and publication.

Those stories can fill column inches -- or, heck, blog post slots at BCR and other sites on some days.

I get probably 65% of the same PR releases that the Herald-Sun and the N&O do, from paid professionals in city and county government or working for local organizations (and from two other sources: business owners, and the well-meaning citizenry volunteers who do this sort of thing to promote their non-profits.)

And it's no surprise, in today's stretched newsrooms, that these press releases are more likely than ever to inspire stories, to become leads for articles -- to become the articles themselves. And to crowd out more expensive forms of reporting.

If Durham, if local communities nationwide, are to save local journalism, I think we have to be careful to spell out exactly what we're hoping to save.

Press release-driven reportage is important, and it's fair and respectable of organizations to work to get their message out.

But when it starts to become a significant portion of the news-feed, we lose the value of local journalism as a watchdog and an independent voice.

It's that we most need. And we need it from the Herald-Sun, or the N&O, or their successors. Blogs play a part in that picture -- but in the shadows, not as replacements, to my mind.

The weakening of that independent community voice has been clarion-clear to this reader in the last few years. And, from the circulation numbers, I suspect I'm not alone. Which is why I've ranked this the sixteenth most important story in the Bull City of the past decade.

Comments

GreenLantern

All I need to know, or want to discuss, it found right here on BCR!

I've never understood, given all the ad-based revenue, why newspapers couldn't be circulated daily to everyone in the Triangle for FREE! What's the alternative for ads? TV?? Billoards? Radio? They're even more expensive, so newspapers are the most economical even if advertisers have to pay more. Talk about reaching the broadest market!
It's just like TV ratings, the more people watch and see your ad, the higher the price of the ad.

Khalid

Newspapers are in search of a new business model. I believe that model will exist online as well as in print. It will not be printing the same information from the print edition in the paper.

It is interesting that some papers are beginning to post blogger comments in the print version. That is a hesistant step in the right direction. Does the internet become the afternoon (Durham Sun) edition? Does the paper come out with a weekly version heavy on analysis of events previously posted online?

It will be interesting to see how it all shapes up over the next couple of years. Good posts BTW...

Jonathan

One of my roommates in college was a journalism major. he worked for the local school paper and wanted to become a investigative reporter. We had many talks about the future of the newspaper industry.

The answer part of your questions GL, if the Herald Sun was free and delivered to my door I doubt I would even read it. Ad-based revenue for print can not compete to the cheaper and more viewed advertisements online. Sure if you increase circulation you can charge more for advertisement, but the trend is moving away from printed material and moving towards online.

However as Kevin pointed out investigative and entrepreneurial journalism stories are the ones that are really needed in the community by professionals. Yes blogs, user comments, press releases are all good and about 98% of what newspapers seems to print cover the same materiel. However, there needs to be professional journalist out there reporting quality stories.

I think you are right Khalid, newspapers need to adjust their business model, the climate has changed and they are still sticking to the old model.

I don't know what reporters make, but why does a paper have to be printed, and why does the newspaper company have to have a nice building. Go solely digital / kindle / iPhone friendly, don't have an permanent office building, use local bloggers, user comments, and press releases as your "daily news", then have a staff of 10-15 professional investigative reporters doing in-dept stories each in an specialized area. Sell ad's on the site, stories to people who want to print them, and have a low subscription rate.

I am really enjoying the top 20 stories over the past 10 years as well.

Will

@Khalid - interesting idea, though you might need to reverse it. Internet traffic drops significantly after 5 pm and weekend/holidays. (Traffic = impressions = ad revenue) That's right, we're all reading BCR at work. Well, I'm not at work yet but I will be. Then I'll check it again...a few times. Each time I'll see the Trinity Design Build and Chamber ads because they're 100% share of voice. My point is that the bulk of news needs to be online in the a.m. and you loose the weekend and the all important (to print) Sunday edition traffic.

The meta issue I find troubling is that of all the newspapers out there I'm not aware of any that have figured out what the new news(paper) model looks like but I give H-S credit for their online redesign. They're heading in the right direction but if they can't keep readers engaged and talking (like here at BCR) the model just isn't going to work. Content, Content, Content (to bastardize Real Estate's motto) is the key to traffic and to Kevin's point that suffers when they're spread so thin.


Kevin Davis

@Will: the "keeping people talking" thing is a challenge. The omnipresent commenters at the H-S online -- BobV, YankeeI, the goofball who's always threatening to turn in the entire city administration to the FBI over something or another -- I think their consistent presence drowns out the willingness of others to comment.

A big part of BCR's success is that the comments tend to be thoughtful and considered, and the dialogue better as a result. A troll has a hard time stepping in and finding their voice in a community where they can't get attention and where there's an active conversation.

I agree about the H-S redesign, which is smartly done. Their challenge is to increase the quality of audience engagement, in order to get more of the kind of discussions they'd like to see happen, and less of those they don't.

I've been reading Gizmodo and other Gawker blogs quite a bit lately and am impressed with the quasi-moderated comment system there, where community- and editor-approved commenters ("starred" commenters) get a free pass to post based on their history, while others get their comments reviewed and voted up to appear.

It's not in a newspaper's DNA to want to screen out some voices over others; that's perceived as undemocratic, and though it happens in many cases for letters to the editors section, I'll bet your typical newspaper editor doesn't want to do that online because they perceive no cost/scarcity issue at play.

@Jonathan: The model you're talking about is what I think, hope, will eventually obtain. The challenge is that the per-reader ad revenue for online is so much less than print, you can't support those kind of editorial numbers -- though that level of staffing is exactly what I think a "local news 2.0" organization will need.

Readers will see an increased push towards ads at BCR in the coming year, with the goal of bringing on 1-2 freelancers to cover more stories... but it's a long way to go from there to having lots of paid, benefits-eligible staff.

Laura

Thoughtful analysis of the current predicament in print media - thank you. I have to say that BCR is my go-to source for Durham news as this blog fills an important gap in our community. Maybe one day that will change, but for now, thanks for the work you do.

Jonathan

@BCR I don't know if this is something we "hope" will happen or something that is already in place to happen, it just needs somebody to join people together and get things moving. I don't think the main revenue stream should come from online ads. Call me crazy but I think a low subscription rate combines with a digital version of a newspaper with no physical office could be possible now.

I really like the idea of streaming your paper digital to people's iPhones, Kindles, blackberries, and then create a water down kindle specially made just for newspapers and blogs. I don't know what the cost for production for such a unit, but if you could get the cost down to $50 with a large viewing screen and interactive menu it would be perfect. The unit could either updates live, or you place it in the dock station next to your computer and it updates the data for the local paper, and blogs of your choice like BCR. Therefore you are making your own custom news and you can add on your New York Times or Wall Street Journal to the digital paper for national, and you can select the 5 out of 10 favorite local journalists to pop up at the top of the paper for local, plus any blogs that you follow.

Let me run a few numbers. I don't know how a newspaper works so correct me if I am forgetting something.

1 Technology / subscription manager $70K
1 editor-in-chief $70k
3 Senior Journalist $65K
4 Junior Journalist $50k
3 Associate Journalist $40k

That’s $655,000 in salary per year. No office space and collaboration can be done via Google wave or a very cheap 1 room office.

Next would be to realistically look at what your subscription rate would be because this will relate to what you charge for subscription.

If we look at the market and say we can get 20k subscribers, then I would say break even point is 15K and have a profit of 5K people. So looking at those numbers I would need to charge $44 dollars a year ~3.67 a month to subscribe to my service. Also I would make a profit of $220,000 a year.

Let’s say no this is a great idea you could easily get 50K subscribers. I then would say my break even point is 35K and 15k people as profit. Then the charge would be 19 dollars a year or just a little over 1.50 a month. My profit for the year would be $285,000. Granted as the subscription rate grows past 50K then I can add on more journalist to cover more areas to attract even more people.

The problem is you can't piece meal the idea. You will need to start up the company with a good $350k where you can start for day one paying 12 people for 6 months without any subscriptions. The local news 2.0 needs to be fully functioning news, not starting with 3 people and adding more when subscriptions start building. It would be really risky but if this idea took off you could scale this idea to many different cities, and really change the landscape of local papers.

Todd P

First the N&O and the Herald Sun have financial trouble. Is local TV's Over the Air signal next in line?

http://www.wral.com/business/story/6701094/

Jonathan Jones

Jonathan,

Your numbers are overly optimistic. Getting 20,000 subscribers for a new online news organization would be a monumental success.

For example, when the Rocky Mountain News stopped publishing earlier this year, a group of former journalists for the paper attempted a subscription-only model similar to what you propose called the InDenverTimes. Their goal was 50,000 subscribers at a cost of about $4 a month. They only received pledges for 3,000 subscribers in a community that was losing a large daily paper and has a considerably larger population base than the Triangle.

I'm not convinced a subscription-only model for a general interest news organization will ever work. It seems to only work with specialty publications (business-to-business, newsletters, trade publications and other niches).

Also, a staff of 10 journalists still doesn't necessarily produce a ton of news to draw readers in. Say, 8 of the 10 are reporters and 2 are editors, and you're asking each to produce 1 story a day. Then you're getting 40 stories a week, spread across seven days for 5.7 per day. Those are just daily reports. That doesn't leave the reporters time to do much of any of the quality, investigative journalism that you were lamenting the lack of in your first post.

Say you pull one reporter out of the daily requirements each week to give them time to develop in-depth higher-quality stories. Then you're down to 5 stories a day plus one quality read a week. Is that enough content that people are going to pay for it?

You can sacrifice quality for quantity of stories (i.e. The Herald-Sun) but then you severely limit your ability to do watch-dog journalism.

The problem with producing high quality journalism is that it is expensive in human costs. To draw the amount of money you need off subscriptions, you either must have a huge subscription base or you need to charge a rate that is prohibitively expensive for most readers.

Jonathan

I believe you are right Jonathan, 50,000 subscribers not a probable goal. 20k is even to high if your news is going to be in the same format as the newspaper. What you have to sell people is The new way to get news.

You would have to recreate how Americans get their news. For example those 10 journalists above mentioned will not do any of the daily news. Bloggers, press releases, school news papers, user contributed stories, local TV broadcast, events from places like DDI, or DCVB would make up the daily news. The 10 journalist would be reasonably for 1 high quality story a week. Therefore you would be getting 10 good in-depth stories per week.

Now how does the news work? Well I am no expert in where the trends are going in the Triangle area, and first there would need to be some extensive market research into what people in the Triangle wants to hear about, how they currently getting the news, and what devices do they use to inform them of what is happening. Then you create a platform that allows subscribers to customize the news to what they want to read and deliver it on what ever digital device they want to receive it on.

Maybe I am wrong but I see the reason newspapers are not doing so well is the abundance of news sources, people are not reading printed text, and there is a need for quality in depth journalism. Traditional newspapers are relaying on a large building space, since they have been around before the onset of great digital communication, and paper printing which requires expensive machines, and large amounts of paper / storage. Also they have the mindset of the entire paper needs to be written by paid staff. Subscriptions have gone down and local papers had to cut back on staff which makes higher-quality articles harder because of an overworked staff.

What I am saying for the local papers, is create a system that users can create their own “daily” news feed, and then have in depth stories by our paid journalist, or by others in the area. So let make an example. Say I subscribe to wall street journal and like the author John Smith, I think Kevin does a great job at BCR, Duke’s local paper has an author I really like named Bill, and 5 of the journalist at Durham Star (just made up a name for this company) really do good investigative journalist that I like. Then for the daily news feed, DVCB, WRAL, BCR’s Fishwrap, are the ones I really find good updates on daily news. I have an iPhone, and like to read some news at work. So every morning the Durham Star’s customized news is sent to my iPhone in an appealing format with the daily news feeds, and any new stories written by any of the 7 people I have chosen to “follow”. I glance over the news feed, and one of the articles catch my eye and I read the intro on my way to the car. At work I log onto Durham star’s website that has a customized layout with all my preferences and I finish reading the article I started on my iPhone. After reading, I “like” the article and towards the bottom of my screen I catch an article that has been “liked” the most times that day by a local author I have not subscribed to. I read the article which is very well written and decide to add him to my subscription list.

Now what is to stop CNN, or some other company from copying my technology and running me out of business? Well this is where I put my trust in the quality of my journalist that only people who subscribe to my service can access. So not only am I focused on creating a new medium on how the Triangle reads the news, I am anchoring my service in the staffing of great journalist covering in depth topics people will want to read about and know.

There are still many problems to overcome, like how to feed into other news sources, and I don’t know all the answers, but I do think the local newspaper model needs to be radically changed, and I am just thinking through ways for that change.


Kevin Davis

@Jonathan: I was going to mention exactly the same example. I do think the Rocky Mountain News survivors may have found less interest in that their market had a second daily newspaper. Im more curious to see what happens when a mid-sized metro loses their core newspaper, and whether a similar approach would work.

I do think Jonathan #1s core point has some merit, though. I suspect that with some creative reporting and newsgathering techniques -- including some community-sourced content -- you could put together a really solid metro and local sports newsroom for a city of Durhams size for under $1 million a year in direct costs.

The question is, where does that revenue come from? It sure isnt ads in todays online revenue environment.

Some of the best musing on this is found in Editor & Publisher -- which, sadly, is in the midst of going under and putting out their last issue. QED, Im tempted to say.

Jonathan Jones

I agree with the notion that you could put together a quality news report covering Durham for a budget under $1 million a year. If someone wants to give me that amount of cash, I could damn sure put together a team that would give the local papers a heck of a fight. But Kevin's question is the key: Where does the money come from? I believe it either has to be philanthropic or a combination of subscription and advertising revenue, and one that is very different from the traditional 20/80 split newspapers have survived on for so long.

And I don't mean to discourage Jonathan "1's thinking out loud. I love seeing people get creative with news delivery models.

That said, the idea of a customized news report is not new. People have been toying with it for some time. The hurdles to make it happen are tremendous. What incentive does the Wall Street Journal have to let users bypass its online front pages and get news content directly from a reader provided by the Durham Star? Same with any of the other national news reports.

And aggregations such as BCR's "daily fishwrap" report serve to help undermine the local paper's online viability, not help it. (BCR's may not be the best example since it probably helps drive traffic to the H-S, which for years had an unfriendly web site that likely kept readers away).

The bigger problem is what happens to that sort of feature when the H-S ceases to exist and the N&O has retreated so deeply into Wake County that there's only the occasional Durham story to link to? You won't be replacing it to links from the local t.v. stations, which -- WRAL aside -- make minimal investments in local news and primarily rely on the morning papers for a daily tip sheet.

Citizen-journalism initiatives attempting to fold the unpaid (or lowly compensated) work of bloggers and others into the daily news report for presentation alongside the work of professional journalists have largely failed. Maybe someone will find the right formula in the future, but it's difficult to manage all the parts when you're dealing with volunteer participants who each have their own interests that may or may not align with the news organization's.

And the throes that the newspaper industry finds itself in are only partially related to the widespread availability of alternative sources on the Internet. It's sort of an urban legend that the Internet is killing newspapers. It's not the Internet, although the failure of news organizations to initially understand it is part of the story.

The following is a bit of an oversimplification, but two major events collided to create the havoc we're seeing now. The first is the steady migration of readers and advertisers to the Web, where advertising rates are considerably lower for similar sized audiences in print. Many newspapers are actually seeing higher readership than they ever had at peak circulation when you combine print and online readership. But online revenue does not yet support a robust news report. The second factor is the Great Recession, which has put a huge crimp on traditional advertising sources, as Kevin mentioned, such as autos and real estate. Together those things have created an economic cyclone which the industry has not yet figured out how to ride out.

Other major factors include the effects of Wall Street expectations of maintaining ridiculously high profit margins, management failures to understand what was happening with migration to the Web, and many newspaper chains over-leveraging themselves while acquiring new properties from the early '90s through the mid '00s.

Kevin, take a look at Ann Arbor and the great failure that is annarbor.com for an example of what happens when a small to mid-size city loses its newspaper.

Jonathan

I don't view anything you are saying Jonathan to be undermining anything I am saying. I love technology and my degree is in engineering and not journalism or English. I thoroughly enjoy hearing others input on what is really going on from people in the field.

The main question you guys are asking is how do we get the funds? My head is already past that point, and I am stuck on is local content good enough that people will want it? I look at the Herald Sun and for $175 a year for paper and $70 a year for web only, and I will not pay that much money when BCR is free and suits me fine for news. Mainly they are not drawing me into wanting to read their paper. I have picked up copies from time to time, but honestly I like BCR 100 times better than the local news. I want a quick wrap on what is going on in Durham, BCR fishwrap, and Google Alerts for "Durham NC" fully satisfy this for me. I hardly ever click the links from the fishwrap to read the full story.

Then I like in depth stories about what is going on locally, BCR does a good job, I sometimes just want some more.

When looking at inDenvertimes I see multiple problems of why that didn't work.

A) They wanted 50,000 people before they started the paper.

B) They had 30 people and needed a 3 million dollar budget to stay afloat.

C) They were largely from a paper that just went out of business.

Now I am not saying that they were bad writers, but if the paper went out of business that means there wasn't a flood of people subscribing to the old paper. Also what has really changed? If the Herald Sun tries my idea I don't think it will work. It needs to be fresh people with new styles and new ideas. Also for a local paper to work you need to be mean and lean. There is no way you can compete with the big dogs with huge budgets. 30 people will scare away investors, and you’re covering way to much stuff. If you want to be lean why fully cover sports? There are always local followings that already write good articles. Combine, not recreate, locally that is.

Finally with any new idea you will not get a large number of subscribers or followers before you even start writing. I was thinking at the minimum needing 6 months to build up a base, maybe when really looking into the area it might take 2 years. The point is figure out what is realistic and then make your company sustainable once you can hit those realistic numbers.

On to the customized news part, Durham Star wouldn't have any deals with national papers, All Durham Star provides is a simple to use platform to customize your news which does already exist to some extent, and most importantly Durham Star provides local news journalist you can follow with the platform. So you would have to subscribe personally to the NYT or other papers, and then the platform takes your user name and password, logs onto the other papers website, and draws the content that you want. Also, many papers now offer a lot of their articles free online. What are the legal ramifications of doing this? I don't know, this would be something I would sit down with a lawyer and talk over.

Okay, so Durham Star is in existence with lets say 10k subscribers and is fully sustainable. Herald Sun with 29k subscribers, can't make the Wall Street profit anymore and they close down shop. N&O is facing drastic cuts and drops Durham coverage all together. There is 280K people in Durham and no local daily news. Durham Star has been extensively using Herald Sun, N&O, and WRAL for daily news and is now faced with a huge problem. My thoughts would be how do we capture the 29K people and turn Durham Sun into a full paper. I would already have great connections with NCCU's and UNC's school of journalism, and some with Duke's journalism certificate. I would tap into paid internships with the college students for creating local news, not investigative work, and get a team of 5-6 college interns to create the local news. I think there is some good young local talent here in the area, and as subscriber’s increase I can turn some of the good interns into full time staff, and hire experienced journalist for better coverage. The basic model is investigative journalism for the Durham Sun, but if the market changes a.k.a. no local news coverage, then the Sun would step up and fill the role.

Now on the marketing side of things I would never use the word subscription. I am not great with words but I would find somebody that is. It needs to be a different word that combines the idea of donation to a local cause with paying a set amount. That is affordable set amount but never limited, to have access to the paper. Also you need to have the paper available to users. A thought I had would be to buy 4-5 nooks, kindles, or the many other digital readers that are coming out, and place them in stores like Beyu Cafe with the Durham Star loaded into them. Then customers to the shops can pick up the kindle and read the news for free while enjoying a cup of coffee, which most importantly getting use to the idea of reading the news digitally. Hopefully this would turn into more people subscribing to the service, and more importantly creating buzz about news stories.

Would subscriptions work? I think that they could provide enough money for solely staff, but I would always continue to look for more sources of revenue. I would use Ads, and have the option for subscribers to opt out of add for an additional fee, work on web / widget platforms for companies to share internal news, or even looking for foundations or companies for sponsorship. I feel that if the news is truly worthy the person, companies, or people will get together and figure out a way to keep the news running, at least for Durham Star ;)

GreenLantern

I still say FREE newpapers delivered to every house in Durham to reach the widest possible market, then upping the ratings-based ad fees, would do the trick.

Everytime I pick up a local newspaper, I fail to see much local journalism since it's crowded out by AP contributions. If the local staff is being cut out, and most of us get our local news off of BCR and Google alerts, then why have a local newpaper??

I think a little Marketing 101 is needed. Why do people subscribe to local newspapers? If only 10% of residents subscribe, are they reading the articles? Are fewer people subscribing due to budget concerns, who don't clip coupons, but miss reading the articles? What about coupon clippers? A wise consumer who doesn't read the articles, can do the math and find a $170 a year subscription is more than paid for by coupons and buying decisions driven by sales inserts. The environmentalists and tech savvy don't need or want another piece of trash to recycle or wait for delivery, and may use alerts and online coupons to save money. Social conservatives don't read newspapers by and large, but they do like to save money and are a relatively large retail consumer base.

If subscriber revenue is 20% of the total newspaper revenue reaching only 10% of the market, an increase in ratings-based ad revenue by 20% would reach nearly 90% of the market when the paper is delivered free of charge. Business activity will grow significantly, and more jobs created due to the expansion of advertising and marketing.

Other than economic reasons, 29K subscribers in a market the size of 300K plus, means that the newspapers are doing something very wrong. Changing the political slant, or the design, or online content, isn't going to be enough in this society that doesn't read much, and which doesn't have the time or desire to utilize the journalism and reporting. So why keep beating a dead horse??

We're all discussing the fate of newspapers from an elitist, philosophical standpoint, when something more basic and structural is at play. Consider the rise of Fox News over network broadcasters. Have network broadcasters maintained their market share with thoughtful journalism segments? The answer is NO. Fox News, CNBC, MSNBC, etc., have grown due to what they report and how it's delivered for a time-contrained, ADD-syndrome populace, that multitasks and have quick, reactionary views to every controversy. Chirons abound(those streaming news updates at the bottom of the TV screen). People get all they need to know from tidbits, and process to spend hours on end on message boards rather than reading and digesting good journalism.

If you want to survive as a communication medium that espouses journalism over news flashes and tidbits, you've got to figure out a way to profitably meet the needs of a significant MINORITY of the public. If you want the Herald Sun delivered to your Kindle, or you enjoy reading it online without the ads, you will need to pay a subscription. The question is for us here in Durham, is will that be enough for the building over on 15-501 to stay occupied and turning out newsprint? Otherwise a small office downtown at the ATC might be all that's needed for a local rag.

Jonathan

Free newspapers are not a good idea. I want to find the person who keeps sending those Durham News papers, and tell them to please stop littering my driveway. I don't even take the paper out of the plastic bag. I dump the entire contents into the recycling bin after I have run over them a few times with my car. I do read the stories online though.

I like your points that you brought up GL. The thing about BCR and Google Alerts is that they summarize what local news is putting out already. If the Herald Sun and the N&O stop doing Durham stories, then our precious alerts and fishwraps will be no more.

I think you are dead on with the marketing ideas; somebody needs to commission some studies and figure out how people get their news, and what people want to see in the news, and what they would be willing to pay for what they want locally.

There is a trend towards the quick news blips, but I don't think people want news blips over good journalism. Yes the days are probably gone where the entire population sits down and reads the newspaper at breakfast. Has quality journalism gone with it? I think not. How people in the triangle wants to get news has changed, but wanting good journalism has not and will not changed, just the way it is presented.

Also I am not really going after how can I save the Herald Sun. I am seeing a problem in the community of Durham and a growing trend elsewhere in the country and I want to figure out a way to make money off this and provide a lasting solution to the current problem. Not that I am really going to open up a news company, but that is how I think.

GreenLantern

I have to admit I do the same thing with those N&O Durham News papers, although I try to take off the plastic bag before I dump them in my new 90-gallon recycling bin. Otherwise, we'd drive the recyclers crazy!

I don't subscribe to a newspaper, but I think I'm still getting sufficient access to good journalism online, free and easy. I'm not a coupon clipper, but I usually only buy what I need and when it's on sale. I'm also hesitant about signing up to the Herald Sun online because I just don't like my email address being tracked with regards to what I read. What will make me pay for a subscription at this point? I don't really know, but I suppose I'm not an easy sell because I don't fit in certain profit categories. I no longer have a cell phone because the cost wasn't worth it (I have cable land line now), so delivering mobile content is of little value to me.

It's great that we have blogs like BCR that are driven by an energetic, philanthropist like Kevin who regularly feeds people of local interest those topics that spark a thoughtful debate free of persistent trolls. Aside from a few ads, I doubt BCR is a profit center for the blogger. If Kevin were to start his own local online newspaper offering more than news releases, point of view, and comment sections, he would have to hire a staff and start paying the bills. If there are only a few regular lurkers on BCR, would it be enough to build a market base to compete with the N&O and Herald Sun?

If as you say, the growing trend in Durham and the rest of the country towards the quick news blips, there's not much a newspaper can do to stop this when people have the attention span of a grassphopper. You can get good journalism from the NY Times, but don't expect any local articles from some small town in NC called Durham. Even if the NY Times offered a Triangle-based section online, would subscription based revenue be enough to pay local journalists, or would it just contain news releases from government and business public affairs offices that have few details and neutralize discussion by lacking any controversial elements?

Kevin Davis

@Jonathan, GL: BCR is a passion of mine, a sidelight hobby that fills those evening and morning hours spent outside of work.

Could it take the place of local media? Not in the current scaled markets for online ad revenue. I won't go into revenue here, but it's fair to say that the current ad revenue is paying for web hosting costs, equipment (bringing better audio recording, for instance), mobile broadband for on-the-go reporting -- and, importantly, incorporation and legal expenses.

For 2010, my hope is to see an expansion of ad revenue sufficient to support increased use of freelance writers to grow the breadth of coverage.

But that is, far and away, a long way from replacing good, homegrown, local journalism.

Jonathan Jones is right on the ball when it comes to the philanthropic vs. for-profit marketplace for local news, and how you sustain newsgathering in a modern era.

I'm not pessimistic that a solution will be found. In a decade, I expect the Herald-Sun will be online-only; largely-online with a pricier, less-frequent print version; or out of business.

But I don't think that communities will tolerate the loss of local journalism.

One thing to muse on: the "paywall" problem (of how to monetize news) has been made difficult by the fact that the NYT, WaPost, LA Times, ChiTribune, etc. are all tripping over themselves covering the same national news content that HuffPo, Drudge, Fox News, CNN, etc. are, to lesser or greater levels of depth or detail.

You're always going to have a "defector" in those markets who chooses to make their content free, stifling the attempts of other sites to charge for that content. (Unless someone had a Bob Crandall-Howard Putnam moment, but the antitrust gods don't look kindly on those sorts of things.)

But that's not true in the market for local news. If Jim Wise or Ray Gronberg (or a blogger) aren't at a meeting, there's no news content to aggregate or distribute. The market size is smaller, and doesn't encourage over-entry.

I'm confident that local journalism will find a way to survive in Durham. To me, it's a question of how, not if. And time will tell what role sites like this one play in that future.

Khalid

The idea of Johnathan's that sticks out the most to me is the combination of local news with custom aggregation from National Sources. Yahoo Finance already "scrapes" articles from financial bloggers, Barron's, Wall Street Journal, etc.

I also find sports sites interesting that have developed moderated communities that people pay to have access to "inside" information from the moderators and other posters.

I find I prefer the political editorials of the Washington Post and Newsweek while I visit some financial blogs for investing information. Being able access these interest segments from a site that I can control and manipulate would be of great interest to me.

As far as advertising goes, online advertising is becoming more advanced and sometimes entertaining. It has potential way beyond the current passive TV ads. As ads become more interesting like the Badger ads that I sent to many people over various internet channels, more people will willfully spread them and provide recognition and possible purchasing for individual products.

The comments to this entry are closed.