US newspapers lost advertising revenue found

And why the answer to the problem is not about scale. 

Thomas Baekdal compares the decline of advertising revenue for US newspapers with the rising ad revenue of Google and Facebook.
Thomas Baekdal compares the decline of advertising revenue for US newspapers with the rising ad revenue of Google and Facebook. Full post at

Everyone in media in the US saw the graph a couple of years ago showing the cliff that the newspaper industry has fallen off with respect to advertising revenue since the beginning of the first decade of the 21st Century thanks to a simple bit of graphing by Mark J. Perry.

Now, media watchers have added the numbers and shown where that money went. Ben Thompson of the Stratechery blog added in Facebook’s revenue rise to show one reason why newspapers in the US are facing even greater headwinds, even as the US economy starts to show a little more life. Thomas Baekdal took it one step further, adding in Google’s revenue. It almost mirrors the decline of newspaper advertising, although Google’s rise seems a bit steeper.

I want to make an important point, though: Google didn’t actually kill the newspaper advertising market. Google replaced it with an entirely different market. It’s the same money, but Google isn’t in the same market as the newspapers. It instead created its own market and brands decided that was a better place to be.

I would also say that Google, via its Android mobile OS, also shifted its advertising model deftly to mobile. When you combine this graph with Mary Meeker’s graph about the attention minutes that people spend, you see why Google’s growth continues.

Mary Meeker's 2016 comparison between the percentage of time that people in the US spend with their mobile devices and the difference in mobile ad spending. Full presentation available here
Mary Meeker’s 2016 comparison between the percentage of time that people in the US spend with their mobile devices and the difference in mobile ad spending. Full presentation available here

In the US alone, Meeker estimates that there is a $22 b opportunity in the difference between the amount of attention that people are spending with their mobile devices and mobile advertising spend.

But it is not all doom-and-gloom. Baekdal also points out:

This is an incredibly important distinction to understand. Google isn’t winning because it’s big or that it has so much more scale. It’s winning because it created a way for people to have high-intent moments, which brands can reach with their ads.

We have shifted from having a single advertising market (all based on low-intent exposure), to having two different advertising markets… and the media only fits into one of them.

I would counter that the old print mass media fit into the scale model. However, there are many other media businesses that were never about scale, and if you look at some of the models that are showing success, they are about finding a committed niche, whether geographical or topical and serving it well. That might be B2B media, such as Rafat Ali’s travel business focused Skift, which just announced a new vertical to tackle, Chefs & Tech. In Tulsa Oklahoma, The Frontier has 500 subscribers, as of April, willing to pay $30 a month for local investigative journalism. De Correspondent in the Netherlands broke 40,000 subscribers last December.

Of course, this is all about reader revenue, not necessarily how to replace the fat revenue that advertising used to deliver to local newspapers. I don’t think that ad revenue will ever come back so we need to find a new model for local news and information, and I don’t think the answer is scale. Media cannot scale cost effectively to compete with Google and Facebook.

As for new models, maybe we already have one in the US, TV, but that isn’t going to go as deeply local as newspapers once did. But I think we’ll see more experimentation in local news media over the coming years supported by truly local entrepreneurs. But sometimes it’s good to know what isn’t working so you can move on to try other things.

Which newspapers will survive?

For much of the nearly two years that I served as an executive editor for a shifting group of small Gannett newspapers in Wisconsin, I often asked myself: Which newspapers will survive? Trust me, it wasn’t an idle thought experiment. That’s the question I decided to try to answer in a recent piece for The Media Briefing in the UK.

The newspapers I oversaw were actually doing pretty well with growing reach and revenue. However, I know that the picture wasn’t so sunny across much of the industry.

Since my job as executive editor of a group of small newspapers in Wisconsin was eliminated in early October, it seems like a week hasn’t gone by when there hasn’t been announcements of cuts in newspapers – Tribune Publishing (almost 10 percent of its workforce is gone in 2015, the Boston Globe, swingeing cuts in Pittsburgh and Philly. It is pretty bloody out there, and we’re entering a final convulsion of consolidation in the industry as big groups like Gannett try to scale their way to compete with the big digital platform players.

Personally, I believe the next three to five years will see a major shakeout in English language media. Simply put, there is too much content chasing a finite amount of attention and advertising. Market corrections almost always overshoot, and this correction has been a while in coming so I expect that this will be bloody and brutal. And newspapers aren’t the only media that will suffer. As we’ve seen in the last month, premium cable sports giant ESPN and even early digital publishers like Gawker are having to retrench and retool. But print was in the vanguard of media to suffer, only really trailing music in terms of digital disruption. This leads me to the question: Which newspapers will survive?

Size matters

Simply put, quite a few won’t. However, I think that some newspapers will survive, and print will still be a pretty significant part of their business, although digital will drive a lot of their growth. I agree with John Stackhouse, the former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail in Canada, newspapers (and newspaper groups) will survive if they are either huge or small. The middle is getting clobbered, and that includes a lot of major metro and mid-size papers in the US.

The challenge for any newspaper group is that while on aggregate they fare pretty well in terms of scale, even when traffic from all of their properties are put together, they simply don’t reach the scale that the major digital platform players do. According to ComScore’s list of Top 50 Digital Media Properties for October 2015, Gannett, with the highest traffic of any US newspaper publisher, came in at number 17, just ahead of eBay. That’s not too shabby. But Gannett’s more than 101 m unique visitors were only 41 percent of Google’s uniques for the same month. That shows the challenge that most media companies are facing. ComScore Top 20 Digital Media Properties in the US October 2015

The major digital platforms are playing an entirely different game. When you look at Google and Facebook, they have all the advantages of massive scale and laser-guided ad targeting without the cost of running a large network of newspapers. Sure, they have their overheads, but they do not compare with the cost of running the 20th Century industrial legacy that is involved with a national newspaper group. And if you’re the Guardian or the New York Times, and, let’s throw a newly resurgent Washington Post, in the mix, you can have national reach without the expense of a local footprint.

For newspaper survival, I really think that small is beautiful. They are still rooted in their communities, but beyond good will, in Sheboygan and Manitowoc, two of the newspapers I oversaw as an executive editor, we didn’t have any local TV competition. They only came when we had a Rob Ford-esque mayor, had an odd crime or needed some snowstorm pictures.

So, size does matter but so does the economic health of the community. If your community is on the economic rocks, it makes it very difficult for a newspaper to survive. Sheboygan County is rocking it economically. It had the third lowest unemployment of any county in Wisconsin in September, reaching a 15-year low, and it has major national and multinational companies headquartered here.

There is a lot of opportunity in community publishing that serves communities like Sheboygan. Not only do I think that newspapers and their digital services will survive in the Sheboygans across the country, if I were an investor, that is where I’d be putting my money.


Content metrics aren’t bad, measuring the wrong things is bad

My friend George Brock has taken aim at Trinity Mirror‘s Newsroom 3.1 plan on The Conversation:

Quite apart from the limp, tired name of “Newsroom 3.1”, the idea of trying to improve performance with detailed numbers of “hit rates” or “impact ratings” has been tried and doesn’t work.

Later he adds:

One way of helping – rather than scaring – Trinity Mirror journalists might be to concentrate on demonstrating that what they produce is valued by people in Birmingham and Coventry. Simple clicks are evidence of passing interest or curiosity, not of a piece of journalism being valued.

Ouch. I agree with George that volume numbers of alone – clicks and even unique users – aren’t going to help us grow our audiences.

Like Trinity Mirror, Gannett, where I work as an executive editor, has also been training our journalists on how to use metrics. It is part of a larger strategy to be more audience focused. But fortunately, the training goes beyond volume metrics to include engagement and loyalty metrics. The main question that we are trying to answer is how do we produce something that is so valuable to our communities that they will pay for it? Just this week, I pointed out to one of my staff that her story wasn’t just getting a lot of views or clicks, but that it also was having higher than average engagement. People were spending time with her story.

Suw and I often say in our training and consulting that metrics aren’t bad but be very careful about what you are measuring because you might end up optimising for the wrong thing. Suw says that we often fail to measure what is important because we focus on measuring what is easy.

Measuring impact and what what our audiences value is challenging, but we have to do it. And we have to get smarter in how we do it.

Local journalism: Business models that don’t rely on scale

Emily Bell hired me at The Guardian, and she has just delivered a speech in which she says what I already know.

The demands of web scale economics have torpedoed the local news model; they have also driven great invention and a new set of entrepreneurial skills into journalism.

Later she elaborates what web scale means.

A viral story is the holy grail. And viral does not mean a couple of hundred thousand any more, it means millions. Sometimes tens of millions.

I know Emily is right that one successful digital business model is scale, but I don’t believe that is the only business model. It’s just one that works right now, in some contexts. Scale isn’t new – it has always been successful, long before the internet and mobile media came along.

But I’ll sketch out the challenge for local media. I am the editor of a number of local newspapers in the US, and I’ll take one, the Sheboygan Press as an example. The total population of Sheboygan County is 114,922. That’s not even a million, much less tens of millions. And, to make things worse, the internet has undermined many of the geographical advantages that local newspapers used to enjoy.

On this basis, I might as well throw in the towel, but I’m nowhere near ready to do that. The challenge for local news is to create a new range of products for audiences born digital and mobile. For too long we’ve been trying to find a market for the same products that we used to deliver in print, and that just won’t work. We can’t simply write that local council story the same way that we used to and hope that social media will be enough to market it. I’m really not sure that those incremental, process-based stories actually engage audiences. Instead, we need thematic stories and engagement opportunities that tackle big issues in sticky ways.

There will not be a single source of revenue that will replace the fat revenues that we used to earn from print. But I have the insane, audacious belief that I can come up with another business model with multiple lines of new revenue: Digital marketing services, events and social strategies that deeply engage local audiences and make money. As Jim Brady once said to me, there is no silver bullet to save local media, just a lot of shiny shrapnel.

As I did when I was at The Guardian, I’m using third party services, the duck tape and spit of the internet, to bring the cost of experimentation down as close to zero as possible. I’m relentlessly measuring what I do, and I’m ruthless and unsentimental about failure. Learn from things that work and things that don’t work. Learn fast rather than fail fast. And, when we hit on something that works, we’re going to scale as much as we possibly can.

And we in journalism need to get over our aversion to selling. We’re being outsold at every turn, and in order to survive, we need to sell the value of the public service we provide, sell so hard that it will make P.T. Barnum blush. This is an existential battle for attention, and we need to sell a vision of local journalism rooted in service to our communities. And I’m not going to pussyfoot around this, we need to get over our aversion to making some coin.

No, I don’t think that every journalist needs to be out there selling subscriptions and ads, but every journalist needs to realise that the battle for attention that we’re fighting. Every journalist needs to understand the business we’re in and how it is changing.

I know that this is a daunting challenge, but I’ve never shirked from a challenge. Bring it on.

Rebuilding journalism through building a community platform


Last year, as my job search started to lead back to newspapers and back to community journalism, I started to think about the challenge and how I might meet it. When I wrote that blog post, I got a bit of pushback on Twitter about how stretched local newsrooms are. I knew that then, and now, I live that challenge. I wrote then:

After years of declining readership and revenues that have led to savage cuts, to say that local journalists are stretched thin is an understatement. They are stretched to breaking point.

Newspapers need to fight for new audiences and new revenue, and they must do that without new resources. As I said in my blog post last year:

When the cuts started, the talk was about ‘doing more with less’. It was about finding efficiencies and cutting out the duplication of effort, but after years of cuts, newsrooms now find themselves able to do less with much less. Editors have had to become a lot more creative on how they work with the staff they have left, with other resources if they are in a group, and with their communities.

When I landed in my new job as executive editor of two newspapers in Wisconsin, I had to prioritise what I would do, and to be honest, I didn’t think I would really be able to start my community platform strategy for months, possibly not until the autumn. But then my communities surprised me. Many people I met said they wanted more from the newspaper. I was honest with them and told them that they wanted the same thing I wanted, a vibrant newspaper. To achieve that, I told them I would need their help, and I was concrete on how they could help.

Since I started marrying social media and journalism way back in 2000, I have continually been surprised by how people and communities engage when you give them a specific thing to do. My communities have really responded, especially the schools.

As a new editor and very much new to my communities, I have made a point to meet leaders in my communities. As I met school leaders, they were very enthusiastic about the partnership that I wanted to create with them. I wanted to give students an opportunity to be heard in the newspaper, and I also wanted to give school leaders the opportunity to take their message directly to readers beyond a quote in a story. Yes, our reporters would report and write stories to put these contributions from students, teachers and school leaders in context, but we also had room to give people in our communities space to share their expertise and opinions.

I have to admit that the stars really aligned on this project. The head of a charter school in Sheboygan suggested that we do something about technology in education, due to a switchover from iPads to Chromebooks at high schools. My reporters were already working on a number of stories about new technology initiatives in local schools, and I had already arranged to visit some high school journalism and creative writing classes. This came together much faster than I had anticipated.

Across both of the newspapers, school administrators, college presidents, teachers, college faculty and students have contributed some 30 articles. What the students have written has exceeded all of my expectations – articulate, passionate and authentic. For instance, the social media editor of the high school news site at Sheboygan North wrote about how she tried to give up social media for Lent. We had another article in which students voiced their opinions about having their mobile phones seized by teachers. From the local charter high school, we had two passionate pieces arguing the pros and cons of technology in education.

More than that, my education reporters uncovered leads for future stories during the process, and I’m working hard to free up time for them to manage these partnerships directly.

This has been such a positive start that we’re now exploring other ways that we can partner with the community. Sheboygan is a real foodie city, with lots of local food traditions plus some stunning high end restaurants in downtown Sheboygan and at the resorts in Kohler. We’ll be launching a digital food hub with a blog and video series in the summer. We are also looking to launch a Community Champions discussion series in which we will give passionate advocates of our communities space to discuss how we help them achieve their full potential.

As I said when I started, I wanted our newspapers to be at the centre of the conversations in our communities, and with the momentum building around our community platform, we’re well on our way.

Paid content, data and knowing your audience

I remember back in the day a number of news websites, the New York Times and the Washington Post included, added registration to their sites. It was long before commenting was common, but the strategy was all about capturing some information, some data, to know more about their audiences.

The Financial Times understands this, which is one of the reasons that it is killing it, and the FT’s CEO John Ridding explains to Poynter how their paid content strategy has helped them capture more data and how that data is helping them deliver more to their audiences.

I don’t think we really understood the power of the data and the audience understanding that came with the subscription model. We’ve been able to build a system of understanding our readers.

They do now, and it is allowing them to add new features that adds value for their readers. If you add value for readers, then they understand the value of paying for content. For traditional media, as my friend Steve Yelvington says, we need to find new ways to add value, and data from subscription services is a powerful way to do that.

Gannett puts a digital guy in charge of a newsroom, me

A little more a than a year ago, I was doing data journalism and consulting for Czech TV, and Kvapilová Pavlína, the head of online at the time, said to me incredulously, “Why aren’t you in a newsroom?” It was a good question. For the last four years, I’ve had a great time working with news organisations all over the world to seize the opportunities of digital media, but I missed working in a newsroom.

I won’t miss it any longer. Today, I started my new job as the regional executive editor overseeing two Gannett-owned newspapers in Wisconsin.

I met with journalists at one of the papers, and the first question that most of them asked was why someone with my background would come to Sheboygan and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to work with their newspapers. The decision was a mix of professional and personal reasons that I’ll be explaining over the next few days, but the key professional reason was that to get the opportunities I really want – the opportunities to drive not just digital innovation but also the editorial direction of a news organisation – I needed experience managing newsrooms.

Last October, Rick Edmonds of Poynter asked “How many top newspaper editors are from digital backgrounds? Still darn few”. Jim Brady of Digital First Media gave this explanation:

It’s more than being slow. It remains hard to find people who understand digital and who have run newsrooms.

This isn’t a criticism of Jim, who I count as a friend, but it is difficult to deny that this is one of those brilliant professional Catch-22s. You don’t have the experience so you can’t get the experience. The industry has rarely promoted newsroom leaders from the digital side. Over the past five years, I have seen more broadcast and print editors take over online leadership roles than I have digital editors take over multi-platform roles. In effect, we have had a digital ceiling. That might change for the next generation of digital leaders, but or mid-career digital journalists like myself, that’s been the reality.

I’ve been a digital journalist since 1996, and I’ve held ground-breaking positions for the BBC and The Guardian. I’ve helped launch innovative multi-platform programmes for the BBC, and Suw and I were part of the launch team for India’s Firstpost. However, up until today, I hadn’t run a newsroom. Now, I’ll be running two. Lowell Johnson, the GM for the two newsrooms, and Mike Knuth, the Executive Editor of the Green Bay Press Gazette and former executive editor and GM of the two papers, deserve a lot of credit in seeing an opportunity to bring me on board and convincing me that this was the right next step in my career.

I was inspired to make this move by friends such Brett Spencer at the BBC and Alison Gow with Trinity Mirror, who came from digital backgrounds but took on overall leadership roles in their respective media. It’s opened up great new opportunities for them, and I am thrilled by the opportunity that is before me.

After years of writing about how I think local editors should engage with their communities and about rethinking the role of the newspaper in the 21st Century, I finally get to put my ideas, and myself, to the test. I have long been hungry for this challenge.

Back to Rick Edmonds at Poynter, he wrote, “With the ice broken, I would look for Gannett, Advance and Digital First to add to that cadre as top editorial jobs come open. And I am eager to see what changes this first generation of digitally tilting editors can produce.”

Watch this space. This job will definitely keep me busy, but I’ll be writing here and elsewhere about I navigate this new phase of my career. It’s going to be a wild ride sometimes, but damn it’s going to be a lot of fun.

Newspapers, changing paradigms and defining priorities

If you like this post and are looking for an editor or digital media leader, I’m still in the market for a full-time editorial management job, so get in touch. After a few years of working independently with news organisations including Al Jazeera, CNN International, B2B publisher RBI and India’s Web18, I’m looking to invest in a news organisation that will invest in me. 

Although John Robinson has stepped out of the editor’s chair at the News & Record in North Carolina, (a beautiful state if you haven’t been), he is still challenging his newspaper and his fellow journalists to think different. In his latest post, he looked at how he spent his time and how those priorities were reflected – or not – in his newspaper. He writes:

My newspaper isn’t alone in not reflecting how I live. It is typical of most people and their papers. And it’s not restricted to newspapers; TV news has the same news diet, and it’s not in touch with mine.

Is the disconnect between how I live and what the news covers unusual?


This reminded me of a report from 2007, Frontiers in Innovation in Community Engagement, by Lisa Williams, Dan Gillmor and Jane Mackay, which challenged news sites to become better at “translating the lived experience of their community”. I blogged about the report at the time, and the quote that really jumped out at me then is still relevant now:

Broadly speaking, the most successful sites are most effective at translating the lived experience of their community onto the web. But only a tiny fraction of lived experience is news. One way of looking at the process of wrapping an online community around a news organization is that it’s an effort to dramatically broaden the range of lived experience represented by the news organization’s output – output that now includes content supplied by nonjournalists.

Recently, I interviewed for an executive editor’s position in the US and, during part of the interview, I did have a moment when I was possibly too honest and said the papers seemed to be “subsisting on the fumes cast off by official life”: Crime, council meetings and planned events. They did have features, in which I could tell the reporters were trying to stretch their wings a bit, and excellent coverage of school sports, but it still was a heavy diet of life as seen through the lens of cops and councillors. A bright spot was their blogs, which covered a range of lifestyle issues including local music and even video games. They promoted them in the paper (minus a link or QR code), but the blogs were hidden pretty effectively on the sites themselves.

Were I to get that job, I would love to revamp the blogs into a mixed community platform that opens up to outside contributors. For the live entertainment blog, I’d get free tickets for contributors. It would take effort and some editorial resources, but it is a formula that scales. I think a food and drink blog would be essential, and it is easy to monetise. And that is exactly what newspapers need right now, editorial projects that generate income to allow them to cover what the blogger won’t or can’t – cops and councils – while bringing in their community to cover that broad range of lived experience.

Dan Conover, left this great comment on how to choose the verticals for this type of community network:

For new media ventures to be successful, they need to fit a formula like this: It needs to assemble a coherent audience (a precise fit for a defined group of potential advertisers) with a sustainable audience-to-reporter ratio, around a topic with intense interest. Forget what people do. Forget what they tell you in focus groups or surveys. Find out what they groove on, and then see if you can do better than break-even on covering it.

To put it succinctly, Ken Sands, who set up a pioneering blog network in Spokane, told me a few years back that the sweet spot is the intersection of location and passion. Local isn’t enough, and hyperlocal plus hyper-niche simply doesn’t work. It’s too narrow to generate enough of an audience to justify the effort or to attract advertisers and sponsors.

Setting priorities

That brings me to another point. This post grew out of a post on Facebook in which John asked about rethinking beats. He quoted Matt DeRienzo of Digital First Media who left a comment on Facebook and said:

We recently established a full-time poverty beat. We are also going to be dedicating more resources to commodity breaking news, though, because competition with TV station web efforts is killing us.

I applaud Matt for establishing a poverty beat because when I’m back in the US I see green shoots of growth after the Great Recession, but I also see a lot of people struggling mightily. I also hear about the struggle to prioritise because of competition from local TV in real-time, breaking news. TV is brilliant at it, and the workflow is much better suited to it, which is something I realised during my years working for the BBC.

Newspapers are facing all kinds of challenges these days, and one of the biggest is how to set priorities in an era of scarce resources. As John says later in his post:

Mass is dead or dying. News orgs can’t do everything.

In digital, in fact, in journalism, there are so many things you can do that you have to decide what you must do. As Rob Curley at the Orange County Register says to new hires:

• Truly understand what our readers need from us
• Truly understand how our readers consume our stories
• Truly understand relevance

Relevance and needs go beyond hard news, and newsroom leaders need to figure out how to cover more of the lived experience of their communities in a way that scales and supports public service coverage. Understand relevance to set priorities and find out what people really groove on, and allow the community to help you cover those passionate niches.

UPDATE: Thanks to Francesco Magnocavallo who let me know in the comments that the original link to the Frontiers in Innovation of Community Engagement no longer worked. I’ve added the working link to the post.

Digital advertising does pay, just not for newspapers, yet

Last week, WAN-IFRA said what many of us in digital journalism have known for a while, that we’re losing the battle for attention. They said that digital news audiences lack the same “intensity” of print audiences. Put simply, digital audiences are less loyal and spend less time with each digital news source. WAN-IFRA CEO Christoph Riess has put the problem this way:

We are not losing readers, we are losing readership. Our industry challenge is engagement. Because someone is a subscriber does not make him a loyalist.

Several people in the industry have been trying to raise the alarm for years now. Two years ago, Ken Doctor pointed out that audiences were spending 7 hours a month on Facebook versus 20 minutes a month on the New York Times or 8-12 minutes on the average US newspaper site. US digital journalism pioneer Steve Yelvington has been talking about this for years, speaking about the problem with audience frequency. As Steve said earlier this year:

Forget all the newspaper industry puffery about how we’re reaching more people than ever. Frequency and time spent are the important metrics.

And the reality is dismal.

From a business standpoint, this has meant that while digital advertising spend has increased dramatically, news organisations’ share of that digital revenue still remains piteously low. As WAN-IFRA noted:

Overall digital advertising market rose from US$ 42 billion to US$76 billion from 2007 to 2011. Only 2.2 per cent of total newspaper advertising revenues in 2011 came from digital platforms.

What you will continue to hear over and over and over, from the likes of former Guardian editor Peter Preston, is that print still pays the bills. They will tell you that you can’t make money online. Preston cherry picks figures from the recent Journal Register bankruptcy filing in the US, pointing to that fact that print revenue is down 19% but still represents 50% of the group’s revenue. However, he conveniently leaves out that digital revenue at the news group is up 235% from 2009 to 2011. Yes, they probably started from a low base, but it is pretty impressive growth. Many news groups in the US have seen their digital revenue growth slow or stall this year, and at least the Journal Register team can point to 32.5% growth this year alone.   

The reality is that you can make money online but that newspapers are not competing effectively for digital advertising. As WAN-IFRA noted, “Search advertising accounts for 58 per cent of all digital advertising and 13 per cent of all advertising expenditure”. US news analyst Alan Mutter noted in April:

The share of the U.S. digital advertising market garnered by newspapers shrank to the lowest level in history in 2011, according to newly published data.

With the growth of digital formats like highly targeted search, mobile and social advertising vastly outpacing the ability of publishers to develop competitive new products, newspapers sold only 10.3% of the $31.7 billion in digital advertising purchased in 2011.

When the Newspaper Association of America first started counting online sales in 2003, newspaper websites carried 16.7% of all the digital advertising in the United States.

There is money to be made online, but newspapers aren’t the ones making it. That’s the problem and, unless newspapers focus on creating not just large audiences but loyal audiences, that problem won’t be solved. Newspapers also need to build up knowledge about those audiences to better serve them journalistically and to provide better targeted advertising.  Those are the challenges we need to meet, and we need to ignore the voices in journalism that say we can’t make money with digital. They have ruled the debate for far too long and have delayed us from meeting the real challenges of digital. 

Journalism: It’s about people

It’s not often when in the flood of social media about journalism a new theme comes out so clearly, but today, the theme I’m hearing is about people. Steve Yelvington, of Morris Publishing in the US, flagged up this post by his colleague, Derek May, an executive vide president at the group. Like John Paton‘s Journal Register Company, Morris is embracing a digital first strategy, but May quoted Billy Morris at length of the challenge facing his company, well known challenges. Morris said that “digital first” was a good first step, but he announced a new strategy: “Audience First”.

What does “Audience First” mean? It means the people come first. What the people want in digital form, we provide in digital form. What they want in print, we give them in print. And what it takes for businesses to reach the people, we provide – both print and digital.

They are setting ambitious audience growth targets, to double their news audience and quintuple their “total audience”. They believe that:

In the digital era, doing a good job on news gets you only a very small slice of the digital audience.

This is really interesting, and as a journalist, it’s something that I’m going to have to digest. On one level, I understand perfectly what he means. The newspaper has always been a bundle that included a lot more than what I might call public service journalism. I guess it begs the question: In a digital era, what is the bundle of information, products and services that creates a sustainable business to support itself, including public service journalism? It’s a fascinating, platform agnostic way to frame a solution to the problems facing news organisations right now.

I’ll tell you another reason why I like the idea of Audience First. In the near term, the next five years, at newspapers, print and digital will still have to co-exist. As much of a digital journalist as I am, I know that simply shutting off the presses would require most newspapers to gut their existing news operations. You only have to look at what happened at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that went digital only and went from 165 journalists to 20. (Note, I’m not suggesting that digital first advocates, especially as I count myself as one, are advocating shutting off the presses.) A counterpoint to the Seattle PI is The Atlantic magazine, which sharpened both its print and digital offerings. In 2010, it turned its first profit and a decade, and in October of last year, The Atlantic announced that its advertising profits were up by 19%.

It takes a village

The next story of people-focused journalism comes from a former college classmate of mine, Cory Faklaris, who works for Indianapolis Star.

In the US, the newspapers that really have really taken an economic beating in the last seven years are the big city metros, and the papers in Philadelphia are a good case in point. The Philadelphia Inquirer, part of the Philadelphia Media Network, is up for sale for the fourth time in six years.

Chris Satullo at Philly public radio station WHYY worked at the Inquirer for 20 years. Satullo notes that another former ‘Inky’ reporter, Buzz Bissinger (name straight out of central casting) asked in the New York Times, “Who will tell Philadelphia’s story“. Satullo responds: The rest of us.

But, please, don’t waste too much breath asking the wrong question: What will happen to the ink-on-paper artifact called a newspaper? That one’s settled: Newspapers will shrink into a graying niche.

Your real worry should not be whether newspapers survive. What you should worry about is the future of newsrooms, those buzzing, resourceful dens of collaboration that make everyone who works in them better than they could be alone.

Satullo points out a truism, as true in the glory days of newspapers as it is now: Great journalism is collaborative. Amen.

Put the audience first regardless the medium, and win more of their precious time by not only giving them great journalism but engage them in doing it. This sounds like a winning strategy.