Contrarian that I am, I've always doubted the claims that print readership and circulation aren't hurt by publishing news on the Internet.
It didn't make common sense to say that some folks would not buy/read printed newspapers when they could obtain the same content on the Internet - in some cases both faster and cheaper.
My publisher friends have long told me that their out-of-state subscription base has suffered because they published online newspapers. They told me, too, that the number of subscriptions they've sold to students leaving home to attend college has dropped. They blamed this decline, too, on free access to news from home delivered on the Internet.
Most publishers haven't been overly concerned because the U.S. Postal Service charges such high prices for out-of-state delivery that there wasn't much profit in selling out-of-state subscriptions. Nevertheless, the loss of paid subscribers of any kind matters.
Initial research held to the contrary, saying Internet editions did as much good as harm to print circulation.
Belden & Associates reported last year that equal proportions of newspaper Web site visitors stopped or started print subscriptions. The much-ballyhooed Belden research said that 15 percent of online users bought single copy editions more frequently, while 5 percent bought less often. Readership - according to last year's Belden research - was a wash, with 14 percent of online users reading the print product more often and 14 percent less often (the rest were unchanged).
Now the other shoe has dropped.
Belden has completed another survey, which found that 8 percent of online users bought more single copies, while 12 percent bought less. Twenty percent said they read the print edition less frequently, while 6 percent said they read the print edition more.
These numbers sound right to my ear.
"We're not overly alarmed, but we think the industry ought to keep an eye on this …," Greg Harmon, Belden's interactive director told Editor & Publisher.
I think we're kidding ourselves if we don't think some of our customers will stop paying for product they can obtain for free.
First, remember that the trend toward lower print circulation started many years before the World Wide Web was invented. The beauty of the Web is that newspapers can now own BOTH the print and online franchises in their trade areas.
Second, being the dominant Internet site in your trade area has multiple advantages, including: You keep competition out, you attract younger readers, you dominate the "coolest new medium" in town, you are moving your products to where "the future will be," and you can have a bigger electronic reach than local radio and TV stations.
Newspaper executives biggest problem is they know how to make big money with printed newspapers, while most haven't a clue how to make anything but pocket change from their online editions.
Here're 10 contrarian suggestions:
1. Understand that there is money to be made in electronic media. Radio and TV sell thousands, perhaps millions of dollars worth of ads in your market. Your online newspaper may have as many people looking it this instant as are listening to the individual radio stations in your market. Sell against radio.
2. Bundle, bundle, bundle. Print classifieds - especially recruitment, auto and real estate - are at great risk because of the Internet. Protect your classified revenue by bundling it with online distribution. Bundle your special sections to offer both print and online distribution. Every advertising product you produce ought to have an Internet equivalent - including your display ads.
3. Put up more ads, less news on your site. Check out your statistics and you'll see that on average 30 percent of your web traffic is visits to your classifieds. Ads - liners, display ads, special sections, etc. - are great content online; this includes classifieds, display ads and special sections.
4. Consider limiting access to some of your editorial content. Run abbreviated stories with promotional tag lines, such as "for the full story see today's Tribune." Publish the headlines, but not the full stories, promoting tomorrow's print edition.
5. Put on your web site content that you can't publish in print for space or whatever reasons. For example, your photographers often take many more photos than you print, so use the other photos online. With a service like Dot.photo, you can post all your photos and make money without having all the fulfillment hassles.
6. Consider building "electronic editions" of your full newspaper and charge subscriptions. Do this in addition to publishing your traditional online newspapers - or face the prospect that someone else will "own the Internet" in your town.
7. Use the Web to promote print. The most recent Belden study said 25 percent of online newspaper readers said they were somewhat or very likely to start a print subscription in the future. Use your web site to make these potential customers "offers they can't refuse." (Most TownNews.com papers are using pop-up windows to offer trial subscriptions — with good success.)
8. Limit access to portions of your online newspaper. Allow free access to all the advertising and special sections, but limit access to some of the news to subscribers. Some papers give passwords to print subscribers, others sell access online. (I'd be careful not to be to restrictive; someone else will end up "owning" the Internet in your market.
9. Understand that merchants in your market want to advertise on the Internet. Make sure those merchants know that the best place to advertise on the Internet is on your online newspaper.
10. Ask for the order. While many want to advertise on the Web (TownNews.com's SWAT team has proved this repeatedly), many newspapers never bother to simply ask for the order. You need to know that you have the most heavily visited web site, you need to promote the fact, then you need to ask for the order.
Your print and online editions can work together!