Local newspapers are smacked regularly for what critics call a self-inflicted death spiral. But then out of the blue there was this amazing tribute to them last week by an improbable source — John Oliver of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.”
Oliver does submit Tribune Publishing to a slow spit roasting for changing its name to “Tronc” in its pursuit of “content optimization,” and documents years of budgetary carnage by publishers that have eliminated numerous journalistic watchdogs against public corruption. He also takes a whack at casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, the new owner of the Las Vegas Review Journal, for vetting news stories about him and his businesses before the articles go to publication.
But, overall, the episode delivers a heartfelt valentine to America’s 1,331 daily papers and why they are, or should be, very important to news consumers (who read them, if at all, mostly in the form of clicks on Twitter or Facebook): “The media is a food chain which would fall apart without local newspapers … The newspaper industry today is in big trouble. Papers have been closing and downsizing for years. And that affects all of us. ”
The alternative, Oliver implies in the riotous skit is turning local journalism over to versions of Taboola and Outbrain, and I don’t think we’re going to see any survey of news consumers where that is the preferred choice. Oliver’s valentine to newspapers, by the way, has recorded, so far, more than 5.3 million pageviews and 76,054 likes.
So what can newspapers do?
They can keep their fingers crossed and hope Facebook won’t do more tinkering with its News Feed algorithm so that members’ photos from their vacations, weddings and baby’s first steps don’t get ever-more weight compared to local news about the crisis in the school district’s budget or the continuing increase in minority unemployment. Papers can do so much more with their own platforms — most of all, their homepages. But most don’t.
The homepage is where newspapers could show off what they do, which, as Oliver emphasizes, can be considerable (even when the brand name is “Tronc” or the owner, like the Las Vegas News Review’s Sheldon Adelson, is wielding a pre-publication blue pencil). But newspapers appear to be much more interested in what’s happening to them on Facebook and the other big distribution platforms than on their own digital real estate.
The report and chart show that users who go to publishers’ homepages spend more time there than they do on social media and they take more action. This means they’re more engaged. If they’re more engaged, they’re more likely to click on an adjacent display ad or video. Even more important, they’ll be more receptive to signing up for a digital subscription. Papers want digital subscriptions to be a major source of their revenue. But it’s not happening.
Consider Gannett. Its 92 local papers — which include the Nashville Tennessean — count 100 million visitors annually. But from that number, Gannett has been able to sign up only 137,000 digital-only subscribers by July 31. That’s not much more than half the smaller number of the 250,000-300,000 range it had forecast it would reach by the end of 2013. (Gannett doesn’t put current numbers in any of its quarterly or annual financial statements; I got the latest number from Craig Huber, CEO of Huber Research Partners, which analyzes media stocks, including Gannett.)
Gannett’s subscription yield from its UV audience after three years of intensive promotion is .0014%, based on the 137,000 signups to date. The New York Times’ yield after its first five years is .015%, or almost 11 times greater. Even allowing for the fact that the Times has much stronger branding that it can exploit in attracting digital signups, the difference is embarrassingly large for Gannett.
The gap in digital signups is not unique to Gannett. It applies to dailies everywhere. McClatchy’s 29 dailies, for example, have signed up 78,400 digital subscribers from its 52 million unique visitors — .0015% — which is a slightly better rate than Gannett’s. But it’s still only 10% as good as the Times signup number.
Interestingly, though, McClatchy’s signups from its local UV audience — limited to the regional market area of its 29 papers — is .0056%, which is almost four times higher. Could that be because McClatchy’s papers don’t put barriers on their welcome mat to nonsubscribers, as shown in yesterday’s homepage from the Sacramento Bee?
Oliver winds up his 19-minute combination rant and paean with this warning: “Sooner or later we’re even going to have to pay for journalism — or we’re going to have to pay for it.”
If newspapers want people to pay sooner, they better set a deadline for themselves on creating more engaging homepages, especially in welcoming potential new digital subscribers. If they do that, then maybe it won’t matter how many more steps babies take on the Facebook News Feed.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.
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