Editor's Notes: Boom and bust, online

The fond hope that online advertising would compensate for lost print newspaper revenue has proved largely false.

By DAVID HOROVITZ
August 27, 2009 22:40

The assumption, or rather the fond hope, that online advertising would compensate for lost print newspaper revenue has proved largely false. Weaker titles have failed as a consequence. The rest are urgently seeking new economic models. Seventy-six years ago, when founder Gershon Agron established the then-Palestine Post with the modest goal of providing British Mandate personnel with an insight into the pioneering pre-state Jewish community, the print run was 1,200 copies. For decades after that, through the name change to The Jerusalem Post and until relatively recently, this newspaper remained at once a thriving and a curious construction - a foreign-language daily in a Hebrew-speaking country; an insider's publication in an outsider's language. Our readership, while bolstered by the still-vibrant Jerusalem Post International Edition - devoured then and now by tens of thousands of subscribers in dozens of countries worldwide - was limited in our country of origin to the minority of Israelis comfortable reading English. So the advent of the Internet, for The Jerusalem Post, represented liberation. In a flash, our content became instantaneously accessible to a vast global readership - the millions of English-speakers worldwide who care passionately about Israel and our complex, fast-changing neighborhood. The Internet transformed the Post into a newspaper title with immediate global resonance. Our Web site at www.jpost.com is the largest Jewish newspaper Web site in the world, and the foremost English-language window on Israel. Our readership, from that initial 1,200, has grown into millions. It is no coincidence that, when candidates Barack Obama and John McCain visited Israel in the run-up to the last American presidential election, the former found time for interviews only with the bestselling Hebrew daily, Yediot Aharonot, and The Jerusalem Post, while the latter spoke solely to the Post. They knew that here is where they would reach the largest relevant audience. Savvy staffers in Jerusalem in the early years of the Internet revolution had the nous to establish a highly professional Web site for the Post. But we also did what all newspapers around the world did with their expensively constructed content - made it available online free of charge. Unanimously, with eyes wide open, the world's newspapers elected to commit what was tantamount to commercial suicide. We gave our product away. And today, with readers spending more and more time on the Web, and increased advertising revenues online failing to keep pace with falling circulation and advertising revenues in print, newspapers around the world are trying to reverse that near-suicidal act of anti-capitalist generosity. For the Post, the exponential growth in traffic produced by our Web site in recent years has brought both unprecedented resonance and significant advertising revenue. But even for us, a small print title with an immense Internet footprint, print circulation and advertising revenue remain central to economic equilibrium. Fortunately, we benefit from a committed print readership, who plainly enjoy the tangible pleasure of holding and reading a newspaper, appreciating the prioritization of news stories from page one inward that is integral to its construction, the familiar features, ease of use and even an accompanying sense of community. We are also boosted by our readers' preference, at the weekends, for writing that can be absorbed in the relaxed Shabbat spirit rather than via computer. For many, many newspapers, however, that early decision to charge nothing online for their reportage, analysis, comment and features - produced at considerable cost by their salaried staff and fee-paid freelancers - constituted a terminal error. The readers' bonanza - being able to access this rich content without paying for it - proved a short-term boom, followed by total bust. Having lost too much of their paid circulation to their own cannibalizing Web sites, newspapers that looked like rock-solid commercial propositions a few short years ago have closed down. Others, including some of the world's most venerable titles, are sinking fast. WHY SHOULD any of this matter to consumers - to those who don't earn their living writing, editing or producing newspapers? Change is inevitable, the seemingly permanent can become redundant with dazzling speed, we evolve or risk being left behind. If newspapers fail, there's always online content to replace them. And if the collapse of the print medium means newspaper titles can no longer sustain their Web sites, then other Internet content providers will fill the vacuum - the Web sites of TV stations and institutions and advocacy groups and bloggers. Good-bye to know-it-all, high-and-mighty editors, determining what readers should and shouldn't be informed about. Hello to citizen journalism, reader-generated journalism, a bottomless well of news and views we can choose to ignore or come to rely upon. Up to a point. The problem is that newspapers, good newspapers, whether in print or online, are central to the empowering of their readers and to the proper functioning of democracies. Investigating and reporting material, and assigning it prominence depending on its perceived importance, good newspapers bring to light information that those in positions of power want disseminated and information that those in positions of power emphatically do not want disseminated. A definition of much good journalism, indeed, is information that somebody, somewhere does not want to see brought into the public eye. Good newspapers empower citizenry by informing them - by devoting resources to that mission that other sources of news and views do not possess or do not choose to allocate. There emphatically is a place for citizen journalism - not least in conveying breaking news to established media outlets. And bloggers can and do establish themselves as credible and important sources of news, analysis and opinion. But as Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, which spends millions each year maintaining its coverage of the war in Iraq, observed recently, "The last time I was in Baghdad I didn't see a Huffington Post bureau or a Google bureau or a Drudge Report bureau there." And yet without credible reporting from that and other war zones, without credible reporting illuminating other flashpoints and dark avenues, how would voters be able to judge the policies of their governments and determine whether their elected representatives should stay in power or give way? How much corruption would stay hidden? How would citizens be able to judge allegations of wrongdoing made public by less credible sources? How would our economic choices be informed and affected? "It's a lot easier to sit home and riff on the work that somebody else does," Keller went on to say. And if no one is doing that original, credible and fair-minded work in the first place, how solid is the foundation for any of the riffing? Closed societies, dictatorial and tyrannical regimes like those in this neighborhood with which we are all too familiar, depend on a constricted, repressed media to maintain control. They shut down offending newspapers. They jail uncooperative editors. They execute irritating reporters. Syria brooks no potent media opposition. Yasser Arafat once notoriously jailed a newspaper editor for relegating an article about his Bethlehem Christmas visit to an inside page. Iran is right now doing everything in its considerable, sophisticated power to prevent the dissemination, at home and abroad, of credible information on its ongoing suppression of post-election dissent. A free world without the freely written journalistic word would still have radio and TV news and documentaries, of course, but they too are constrained by the intervention of state and private owners and advertisers, by ratings imperatives, by limited resources. And there is often no broadcast substitute for the power of the meticulously assembled written dispatch. WRITTEN JOURNALISM is necessarily evolving. The assumption, or rather the fond hope, that online advertising would compensate for lost print revenue has proved largely false. Weaker titles have failed as a consequence. The rest are urgently seeking new economic models. A very small minority of titles have wealthy, non-interventionist trusts or individuals behind them, ready to write off heavy losses in the cause of independent journalistic excellence. Others have wealthy, agenda-driven backers willing to sustain them for particular motives. But most, now, are looking for ways to monetize their Web sites - to reverse that initial giveaway and persuade readers, now accustomed to getting their online content free and understandably reluctant to dip into their wallets to pay for it, that there's no such thing as a free online newspaper lunch. If no money changes hands, the newspaper and its staff will starve, and the reader will be left to find a less nutritious, less satisfying meal elsewhere.


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