“If you wanted to sell more papers…”
I got that line in a recent e-mail from the chairwoman of a local Democratic Central Committee, followed by some sage advice on what she thinks will make people flock to reading our publication in abundance, weeping with joy at having our written words grace the presence of their tear-streaked faces.
Obviously, as the sarcasm in the above paragraph this is not the first time I’ve had a sentence starting with those six words written or spoken to me.
William Allen White’s sage advice still stands: Making love, poking a fire and running a newspaper will never be done to everybody’s satisfaction. Although I’ve been given a lot more unsolicited advice on how a newspaper should operate than how I’m maintaining any campfires I happen to be around.
But, there’s just one problem. Everybody seems to assume that since I work for a newspaper, I want to sell more newspapers.
Actually, I’m not sure that I do. I do want the business to be profitable enough that the suits in the Southern California corporate towers (business park) will see fit to keep me employed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to sell more papers. In fact, selling more papers right now could actually be detrimental.
Why? Basically, I think it would just a be a recurrence of the same problem that got newspapers into the mess they’re in today: They wouldn’t be forced to change.
As you know, I generally oppose the concept of Internet paywalls for newspaper websites. That’s for three main reasons.
First, I consider them ineffective because all non-local news can just be accessed at other still-free news sites.
Second, people have been used to getting news free for what amounts to multiple lifetimes in the Internet era that they’re more likely to just go without local news rather than pay for it.
Third, the newspaper industry never actually charged the customers for the price of producing the content, we just charged them the cost of delivering it. (This is, I admit, a weak argument, since an industry in transition can simply change that method. In fact, I think that should happen- but for getting the news in print instead of online)
But right now, the newspaper industry’s popular-again method for generating online revenue is paywalls. And they aren’t even really geared at developing new online revenue as they are a tactic to try and get people to still subscribe to the print version, since that still generates most of the money.
But retrenching tactics like that aren’t going to result in anything but a death spiral. If you continue to focus so much effort on keeping customers using one product that, while money-making, is become less popular instead of trying to aggressively diversify where the money comes in from, the money from that popular product will just continue to be less and less.
That will ultimately affect the quality of the product, which will drive away more customers, which will result in less money, then less quality, then less customers and so on.
So, the goal shouldn’t be to “sell more papers.” The goal should be “To generate maximum revenue in a way that keeps our product as easily accessible as possible.”
Pulling this off will create a “life spiral” instead of a death spiral. Because if a news business starts making more money from somebody just freely and openly using their product, it will encourage them to make it more open, thus more people use it, and thus making more money.
So, the next time somebody gives you advice to “sell more papers” (or, if you’re a non-newspaper journalist reading this, you want to tell a journalist how you think they can “sell more papers”) , consider the possibility the right response will be “maybe we don’t want to.”