Meet & Three: a second helping
By Craig Brandhorst, 803-777-3681
When the first issue of the redesigned USC Times hit the racks Jan. 13, the university’s longstanding print publication unveiled a new semi-regular roundtable discussion called Meet & Three. The idea is simple: invite three members of the USC community to lunch, give them a provocative topic, sit back and hit RECORD.
For the roundtable’s debut, USC Times tackled a question near and dear to the staff’s collective journalistic heart: the future of newsprint in the Digital Age. The invited guests were USC alumnus and Free Times editor Dan Cook, media historian Kathy Roberts Forde and online editor of The Daily Gamecock, Austin Price.
What follows is just a small taste of that conversation, an extra portion not included in the print feature, “Are We Dead Yet?” For the full meal, grab a copy of USC Times at one of 25 racks located across campus.
We hear all of the time about newspapers going under, whether that’s because they can’t compete with the Internet or because traditional funding models just don’t work anymore. And yet we still have print newspapers. What works, what doesn’t?
DC: At Free Times, our circulation has not been hurt by the Internet. I think a lot of people still prefer to read us in print. But our online readership has definitely been growing — and significantly, by double digits over the past couple of years. Is it putting a ceiling on the print numbers? I don’t really know.
AP: A lot of cities have some kind of alternative weekly like Free Times, and the Internet hasn’t hurt their circulation. When you have free publications, it’s a lot easier to get people to pick up your publication than trying to rely on subscribers. Plus, they provide more local news.
KRF: It’s clear that the business model is still very unstable and that it is changing and it has been for a while. What seems to be happening at least for the past couple of years is that a lot of newspapers seem to be moving toward more of a 50-50 business model, where fifty percent of revenue is from advertising and fifty percent is from subscription, either print or digital. There’s also a movement toward newspapers that are online having some type of paid content. Out of 1,400 plus dailies in this country, about 380 of them now have paid content online.
DC: For Free Times, a smaller percentage of our revenue now comes from the weekly edition. Not the vast majority but a greater percentage of our revenue comes from niche publications like Bites and Sights, our dining guide; FT Parent, our family magazine; Sideline, which is our football magazine. We’ve had to be nimble in creating new products that are completely locally relevant. It’s very tied in to local, but it’s less of a general mass-market news product, more of a niche product tied to the local.
So what about bigger newspapers? And what about dailies? Can they survive the digital revolution?
KRF: It’s interesting. We have people like (Amazon founder) Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post and (investor) Warren Buffett, who has bought a whole bunch of newspapers, including his Omaha newspaper. You’ve got John Henry, the Red Sox owner who bought the Boston Globe. You’ve got all these nonprofits trying to subsidize newspapers. The advertising subsidy, the way it’s worked in the past, has changed, so there have to be new types of subsidies. That needs to be something that’s a part of all conversations about print journalism, online newspapers and newspapers in general.
AP: With somebody like Jeff Bezos, he’s trying to find a new sustainable business model for the Post. He was asked if he ever thought he’d see a day when the Post ceased to put out a print publication, and he said, “probably, but it might be decades.” He said it might be a luxury, like, people own horses but they don’t ride them to work every day. But I think he’s done a lot of really interesting things with Amazon, so it’ll be interesting to see what he does. I think with Warren Buffett, he may be just as interested in seeing if he can keep newspapers alive.
DC: I don’t know, though. Think about the kind of papers Buffett’s buying. He’s buying small community papers. I think he sees an investment opportunity because these are papers that, unlike the big city papers, don’t face much competition. They tend to have a monopoly in their market.
KRF: And they still have advertising dollars.
DC: They still have some advertising dollars. There might be a civic element also, but I think he basically sees them as a cheap investment. It’s unlikely that anyone is going to start an online news organization, or a print publication to compete in, say, Sumter. There’s not enough potential reward. But there is a lot of potential there for print.
KRF: Taken as a whole, the Internet is a very different type of disruption than newspapers have faced in the past. But they’ve faced disruptions, and print has continued. I think it’s historically unlikely that print is going to go away in news media. I think it’s going to become more niche, like Dan said, and I think it’s going to have to become more differentiated, but print’s not going away.
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