Times media columnist David Carr sought out an entirely predictable quote from a former newspaperman turned "Web evangelist" denouncing the Philadelphia Inquirer for delaying online publication.
But the Philadelphia Inquirer's new policy to publish "signature investigative reporting, enterprise, trend stories, news features, and reviews" in print first, and then online, makes good economic sense.
Many newspapers still make startlingly small amounts of revenue on the web. I suspect that is the case at the Inquirer, so delaying publication of their best material is a smart move entirely consistent with the economics of new media.
It's the revenue, ...
A bit of arithmetic using statistics from an industry survey shows some newspaper web sites were earning only $0.33 to $0.83 per visitor for the entire year in 2006.1
I presented these calculations last week at a conference, and the next day heard an executive at a major metropolitan newspaper cite figures for their current web operations. The paper earns less than $4.00 per visitor each year. Revenue per reader in print is probably much higher at all of these papers.
Publishing a story online probably increases the number of readers compared to a story published only in print. But some print readers will also move online to read the story, reducing the revenues earned in print.2
This means any online gains in readers and revenue have to be large enough to offset losses of print readers and revenue. And the very small online revenue numbers suggest this is unlikely to happen if the story is published both places at the same time.
So the Inquirer is probably doing the right thing economically. Withholding publication of expensive to produce investigative and enterprise stories will limit the immediate loss of print readership. Meanwhile, the paper plans to keep publishing breaking news on its website, which is probably what most online readers are looking for in the first place.
Several newspaper and television employees responsible for publishing online and in mobile media spoke at the conference, and all complained about having small staffs. The majority of journalists at these organizations still work in the print or broadcast part of the operation.
But this is also sensible so long as revenue per reader or viewer is much higher for distribution in print or over the airwaves. Keeping web operations small when online revenues are also small shows these companies are economically rational.
That may not satisfy the naive view that Carr promotes in his column, but it should make everyone at the Inquirer and elsewhere feel a little better about what their bosses are trying to do.
1 Newspaper Association of America: Newspapers Online Operations – Performance Report 2006.
2 Wildman, S.S. (in press). "Interactive channels and the challenge of content budgeting." The International Journal on Media Management.