Digital journalism reaches sustainability, but transitional business problems interfere

Written by Robert G. Picard Wednesday, 11 July 2012 10:00 PDF Print E-mail
The income streams of digital news providers continue to grow and many have now reached the point of sustainability. Fundamental financial and business problems, however, are keeping publishers from moving out of print and becoming digital-only operators.

This leads many publishers and journalists to continue bemoaning the fact that digital media do not provide as much income as print and many still argue that organized, regular newsgathering and distribution cannot survive in a digital-only environment. They point to the fact that digital advertising produces only about 15 percent the income of print advertising—largely because it does not appeal to retail, display advertisers--and that paid circulation for digital products is growing slowly.

Their analysis is flawed, however, because publishers do not require as much revenue online as offline because the costs of digital operation are so different.

Editorial operations account for only about 10-15 percent of total costs of operation of print newspapers, but they are the primary cost for digital operations. About half of the costs of print are taking up by printing and expenses for getting papers to readers; when the costs of paying for and maintaining buildings and land used to house presses and circulation equipment are factored in, those costs rise to about 60 percent of total costs. Expenses to maintain the large advertising operations found in print newspapers add another 10 percent to overall costs and the managerial costs due to the large number of personnel and functions in non-editorial activities add about another 5 percent. Thus, switching to digital operations can take out at least three-quarters of the costs of print newspaper operation, making the lower revenue of digital operation sustainable.

A growing number of newspaper companies are already generating 15-20 percent of their total revenue from digital operations, making nearly enough money to sustain the kinds of journalism practiced by legacy news media. So why does negativity about the future of journalism remain so high and why are newspapers not yet moving to digital-only operation?

There are three primary reasons:

  1. Print newspapers still continue producing above average returns compared to all industries. No publisher is willing to throw away those operating profits even if the costs of print operation are higher than digital.
  2. Retail advertisers get more return on investment from newspaper advertising than any other form of advertising, including digital. As long as they remain willing to advertise in newspapers, no publisher is willing to give up the revenue stream and operating profits that they now provide.
  3. Owners of print newspapers have a great deal of capital tied up in facilities, printing and distribution equipment that cannot be withdrawn because few buyers want to acquire the used equipment today.
The fundamental challenge today isn’t that digital journalism has not reached sustainability; its how does a publisher transition from the print to digital-only operation in a way that is financially feasible and desirable.

The transition is critical for society because it will bring with it the reportorial strength and organization that exists in newspapers. That is something that digital startups do not provide because they generally lack the capital to build and sustain staffs as large as those of print newspapers and because they lack the reputations and brand identity of established papers.

Newspaper owners, publishers, and journalists then need to stop decrying the digital revenue problem and start focusing on solutions to the business challenges of when and how to realistically reduce and end the print operations. It will happen at some point in the future; the problem is how to plan and manage the switchover.

Source http://themediabusiness.blogspot.com/2012/07/digital-journalism-reaches.html