The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press are expected to announce this week that they're cutting back home delivery to three days a week. A friend from Detroit says this is suicide; people in Michigan simply will not get into their cars and go to a newsstand to get their papers. Another way to put it is that they're like those patients with terminal cancer who try crazy alternative remedies based on obscure Mexican plants--sure, it won't work, but if you're going to die anyway, why not give it the old college try?
James Surowiecki has a great article in the New Yorker this week on the problems in the newspaper industry. Felix Salmon says print subscribers aren't so great anyway, because they're expensive to get and maintain--few publications cover the cost of printing and distributing all those papers and magazines. The problem is that while the subscribers themselves are expensive, so is the advertising. So far, no one has found a way to monetize online readers the way that print publications once monetized their distribution.
There are multiple reasons for this. Part of it is the quality of the distribution--papers have a goodish idea of who reads them (and therefore advertisers have a good idea of how many people in their target audience each ad will reach), while God knows who's clicking on your web page. There's also the fact that a lot of advertising is brand enhancement, and that doesn't work very well on the web. Those tiny spaces alongside web pages are good for advertising specific goods, but not so good at putting an elegant gloss on the image of Singapore Airlines, which is why Google is so far the biggest winner in web ads.
Then there are the readers. People either like, or don't care about, print ads. On the other hand, they hate web ads. The more an ad intrudes on their consciousness, the more they hate it, which is something of a conundrum for the brand builders. And no one's yet found an effective service to strip all the ads out of a print publication.
Still, part of it is just irrational. In a lot of ways, web advertising is superior: much easier to track both views and response. But so far, advertisers will only buy it at a steep discount. Unless that changes, the future of the American newspaper is grim indeed.
That said, it takes a while to figure out how to make advertising work in a new medium. The original television ads were simply transplanted radio ads, and they were dreadful--just as the original radio ads consisted of someone reading a print ad, which didn't work very well. We may just be waiting for our advertising revolutionary who can show us how to make webvertising work.