When Online Newspapers Aren’t Free Anymore, Does Buying The Cow Make More Sense?

For an industry that’s long been regarded as growing more dispensable every day – and practically on its last legs — the newspaper business continues to see a ton of buying and selling interest.

A few months after acquiring the Colorado Springs Gazette (part of a larger deal to buy Freedom Communications), Boston-based entrepreneur Aaron Kushner re-sold that newspaper to Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz. According to a report from Poynter.org, the online home of the Poynter Institute journalism school, Kushner isn’t suddenly having buyer’s remorse. On the contrary, he’s ramped up hiring at the Orange County Register, which he also bought as part of the Freedom deal, and he reportedly continues to be in the hunt to acquire more newspapers.

And Kushner isn’t the only one investing in print. The Oracle of Omaha, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, made a rash of newspaper acquisitions in 2012, including more than 50 newspapers from Media General. Like Kushner, Buffett has already cut loose one newspaper. And, like Kushner, Buffett is still bullish on the fish-wrappers, hinting that he’ll solve the problem of getting readers to pay for online content.

All the news that’s fit to digitize?

The jury is still out on that one. National publications like the New York Times are seeing increases in digital revenues – but not enough to prevent layoffs and buyouts, which continue. In fact, many newspapers and magazines keep trying to sell the cow while giving away the milk for free. A concept that definitely cuts across Warren’s grain.

So, is print enjoying its final hurrah? Or is it poised to turn the kind of profit that, a century ago, turned cutthroat gamblers into newspaper barons?

In placing his bet, Buffett stands firmly behind the idea that news, like politics, is local. And that, no matter how fancy the gadget, people eating breakfast would rather dirty their hands with newsprint than fool around with a temperamental touchscreen. Who really wants to preserve their daughter’s engagement notice by sending it to a laser printer?

On the other hand, none of the major players seems ready to make a blockbuster announcement that digital subscriptions (aka, paywalls) are here to stay. And while the Project for Excellence in Journalism releases an annual State of the Media report detailing hard numbers for trends such as online vs. print advertising, those numbers aren’t due for another month or two. Which keeps the crystal ball cloudy at the moment.

“Location, location, location” isn’t just for real estate anymore

Leave it to a global research agency like Millward Brown, then, to predict that, in 2013, “we will see an increase in the amount of content shifting away from ad-supported business models to pay-per-view or subscription-based models.”

Translation for newspapers and magazines? Because print circulation has dropped significantly in recent years, advertisers seem less interested in spending money on a display ad that fewer people will see. Which means that advertisers will, in huge numbers, follow those lost readers to their new home – online. And make print profitable all over again, in a digital way. Right?

Not exactly:

  • In the Yes Column: Some newspapers will succeed in attracting readers to switch to “premium” paid online content – mostly larger papers in geographical regions that are heavily wired for Internet and mobile access, making the switch both a convenience and a content upgrade for the same price as print. Maybe lower.
  • On the No Side Of Things: Smaller, “hometown” papers will still need to rely on ad dollars to make ends meet – especially in areas where Internet access is slow or simply costs more than people are willing to pay. Or costs more than a newspaper subscription bundled with a shopper insert loaded with money-saving coupons.
  • For now, at least, the battle between print and paywall seems to boil down to that old marketing standby – which is more convenient for the customer and, therefore, easier to sell?

Of course, mobile devices are sure to creep into every home at the price point of a basic calculator, helping the paywall model make print virtually obsolete. Someday.

Until then, you might want to keep juggling that copy of your local broadsheet with a mobile device. Dropping one for the other – right now, at least – could do more harm than good.

Warren Bufffett, no doubt, is banking on just that.

Image via Kain Road Cul de Sac / CC BY 2.0

Sonya Hartland

Sonya Hartland is a partner and Chief Strategy Officer at Pierce Mattie. Sonya’s areas of expertise include strategic brand building, earned and paid content from press and influencers, and experiential and affiliate marketing. An avid animal lover and occasional canine foster mom, Sonya volunteers with a local animal rescue.

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