Philly Answer to Tough Critique of Newspapers’ Digital Push: We Need to Do Better and We Will

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As if local newspapers don’t have enough problems, now they’ve been socked with a study that says their struggle to bridge the immense gap between the print and digital worlds has been a near-total bust.

The verdict comes from two diligent researchers at the University of Texas, Hsiang Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim, in a study they’ve published in Journalism Practice and titled, with supreme understatement, “Reality Check.”

Chyi and Tenenboim, after examining 51 daily papers and their print and online readership and reach between 2007 and 2015, concluded:

”Surprisingly, online readership has shown little to no growth during the period. The average reach increased slightly from 9.8% in 2007 to 10.7% in 2011 and then decreased slightly to 10.0% in 2015.

”A closer look at the online readership data revealed that, among the 51 newspapers, 26 increased their online reach by 0.1 to 7.2 percentage points between 2007 and 2015. But 21 newspapers reported a decline in online reach, losing anywhere from 0.4 to 6.5 percentage points during the same period of time.”

The study’s comparisons — for both print and online — are here and here. (Both comparisons, it should be noted, include only “in-market” segments of readership and reach; excluded are out-of-market online unique visitors, which are factored in the cost-per-thousand [CPM] rates for ads.)

There have been a number of reactions to the study from well-informed observers of local news publishing — by Matt IngramJack Shafer and Steve Buttry, among others. But I wanted to hear from someone embedded within newspaper publishing and with a meaningful stake in its future. To do that, I went to Jim Friedlich, who is Executive Director and CEO of the Institute for Journalism in New Media.

Friedlich’s views are important because his team helped oversee the “Call to Arms,” a recent newsroom innovation report designed to help transform Philadelphia’s two daily newspapers in both their print and digital platforms for 21st-century audiences. One of the papers, the Philadelphia Inquirer, is among the 51 newspapers whose readership and reach data is compiled in Chyi and Tenenboim’s study.

The Institute is also important to issues raised in the study because its overall mission extends beyond Philadelphia — to “all local news media” nationally.

Here’s Friedlich’s assessment:

“We read the recent University of Texas report with great interest and respect as its focus and its conclusions are core to our work. The Institute for Journalism in New Media was founded last year by Gerry Lenfest, a cable television entrepreneur and owner of the Philadelphia InquirerDaily News and, the leading regional news properties in both digital and print. Lenfest created the Institute to help support public service journalism in the digital age, and he donated the three Philadelphia Media Network news assets to the Institute to serve as a test kitchen for investment and experimentation in digital news.

“Our news and business colleagues in Philadelphia are rethinking their digital news gathering, content management, user experience and use of both mobile and social platforms with encouraging results but a long transformational road ahead. I’ve been highly encouraged by the commitment and inventiveness of the editors, the newsroom, the CEO of the Philadelphia Media Network, a seasoned newspaper executive with a deep commitment to digital evolution, and its Chairman, a prominent digital investor and venture capitalist.

“We applaud the University of Texas team for documenting widespread under-performance of newspaper websites. While there are notable exceptions, newspaper digital efforts have often failed to achieve the local audience leadership, engagement, or monetization necessary to offset print losses or even a meaningful fraction thereof. Often when audience scale has been achieved, monetization remains a challenge. In this sense, we agree with UT, ‘guilty as charged.’ Where we differ with the conclusions of the UT study is in our view of the root causes of this underperformance and the conclusions as to what to do about it.

“The UT study presents the view that newspaper owners have gone all-in on digital migration- what the study calls a ‘technology-driven strategy’ — at the expense of opportunities to double-down on print. In our view, most local newspapers have invested too little in digital product evolution rather than too much.  For an array of reasons — legacy thinking, financial constraints, and management orientation — many have not invested the capital, human resources, and especially the product development expertise necessary to create best-of-breed digital user experience.

“Too often the digital website differs little from the print edition, save for the fact that it is harder to read, burdened by poor load-time and ‘rich’ ad units, an ‘inferior good,’ as the study says. Where metro newspapers have adopted the precepts of design thinking and put the user experience first, their audience reach and engagement has improved measurably.

“The digital redesigns of the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Dallas Morning News are all cases in point. Each has improved user experience, reduced load times, cleaned up visual design and optimized for the mobile platforms on which most readers now consume digital content. And each has grown its audience demonstrably.

“There is also a growing list of success stories in digital subscriptions among regional newspapers, led by the Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star Tribune and other local titles following on the heels of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. Digital subscriptions are fundamental to a sustainable newspaper business model as print subscribers wane and digital advertising is either commoditized or blocked.

“We agree with the UT study’s conclusion that print remains a vital source of income and reader engagement for most major newspapers and thank them for reminding us all of this fundamental fact. We are also encouraged to see major news organizations like the New York Times create new senior-level positions for “print innovation,” since there is surely more that we can all do to engage our remaining print customers. That said, it would be folly to conclude that the continuing survival of print suggests any wisdom in de-emphasizing digital.

“We are headquartered in Philadelphia, but our work and mission extend to all local news media committed to the future of great journalism in a digital age. Our focus will continue to be on supporting profitable new ways to advance digital journalism through an array of means: better user experience and product development, effective payment systems for digital content, stronger audience engagement, and enterprise content that is compelling across all media platforms.

“We were founded on the notion that business success in digital news has been elusive, just as the University of Texas study suggests. But it is axiomatic to us that digital journalism and distribution are fundamental to our future because they are so fundamental to our present. We don’t think we as news industry executives are playing the wrong game in investing in digital; we believe we need to play it much better.”

Tom GrubisichTom 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.