News & Criticism

Kill Your Newspaper? Filloux Flings Fillip at Floundering Feuilletons

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Take Hitler and put him in the funny pages!

If you have, as I have, closed your heart to pity, you may find yourself agreeing with Marc Andreessen, partial inventor of the standard web browser, who says in an interview with TechCrunch that it's time to euthanize newspaper print editions and focus solely on virtual media.

Frédéric Filloux of Monday Note points out that Andreessen has been calling for publishers to jettison paper for some time:

A year earlier, he called publishers to "stop the presses tomorrow", saying to TV host Charlie Rose: "…I'll tell you what. The stocks would go up. The investors are through [with] the transition. You talk to any smart investor who controls any amount of money, he will tell you that the game is up. Like it's completely over. And so the investors have completely written off print operations. There is no value in these stock prices attributable to print anymore at all. It's gone. (…) How many years of chronic pain do you want to take to avoid taking a year of acute pain?"

Filloux says whatever the French equivalent of "hold your horses" is, but in English. He notes, as I noted recently, that print is still bringing in the vast portion of revenue. The Washington Post, for example, brought in $679 million for 2009, of which $317 million came from print advertising and $100 million from the online operation. Says Filloux:

We are no longer in the old configuration where one-tenth of the revenue came from online operations, we're now at 14% of the entire newspaper revenue; and the online advertising share is now 31% of the paper advertising revenue. This changes the landscape.

In the recession, online ad revenue has been declining less rapidly than print advertising, but you can see from these numbers that discontinuing the print operation is a lot easier for an outsider to suggest than for a publisher to do.

Print ads still bring in a heap of money. They could be bringing in more, but ad sales forces at newspapers are…um…they tend to be…well…let's just say other careers may attract a different caliber of professional. (I said different, not better! Everybody can be special in old media.) And the numbers above look less impressive when you consider the vast costs in inflated salaries, physical plant, delivery and other non-news-gathering and non-revenue-creating expenses that print brings.

But when you look at the source of every dollar of income, the seemingly settled case for ending print in a legacy publication looks less clear.

Newspaper professionals are screwed. They deserve to be screwed. I wish them nothing but misery, tears and bigger screwings in the future. But they are legitimately screwed, with no real solution to their problem.

Filloux hints that "newspapers's tendency to become daily magazines could breed a fruitful transformation." This sounds like the old "smaller-but-better-circulation" plan that has ended in sorrow many times in the past. I presume the French have more of a tragic sense than Americans, so it's surprising that Filloux misses the real truth: Newspapers can't survive if they don't change, and they can't survive if they change. There's nothing ahead but defeat, and all they can do is keep marching. It's beautiful in a way.

Courtesy of Jack Shafer.