More Thoughts on the No-Print NY Times

I was over at my in-laws’ house yesterday and I found myself in a mild argument with my father-in-law over the fate of the NY Times. They’re former New Yorkers (now living in the SF Bay Area) who subscribe to three (count ’em) print newspapers.

I mentioned the now semi-infamous quote from NY Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger that appeared in an Israeli newspaper last week:

“I really don’t know whether we’ll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don’t care either.”

I said this was a ridiculous position but my father in law (67) disagreed. He saw Sulzberger’s position as entirely justified by the marketplace and the decline in print subscriber numbers.

I agree there’s tremendous pressure on newspapers, not only in terms of competition but just in terms of basic costs (fuel, ink, paper, etc.) Newspapers are also getting beaten up by the Internet on all sides: search, verticals, classifieds sites, local sites and so on from a usage standpoint. And they’ve so far failed to transition their larger advertiser relationships from print to the Internet.

I want to comment on Sulzberger’s quote from a brand and reach perspective. Even though it’s incredibly costly to publish a print newspaper, the impact and influence of the NY Times wanes if the paper goes online only. Then it becomes just another news source with some better writing but that likely degrades over time too. And unless the Times radically changes its model, it ultimately loses to news aggregation sites like Google News and Yahoo! News and to social news sites like Digg at the other end.

Online reach is limited vs. the combined audience of online and offline. Also, unless or until “e-paper” becomes widespread, the online only version of the Times largely loses the commute audience (notwithstanding mobile availability of the paper). It also loses the print revenue stream. Online ad revenues are now about 5% – 8% of overall revenues in the industry. The NY Times is not going to be able to build the reach of a Google or Yahoo! Thus it’s not going to be able to reproduce lost print revenues online. (That’s a challenge with print, of course.)

So from my point of view the online-only NY Times loses valuable print revenues, brand strength and reach. What the Times needs to do is figure out where it can be more cost efficient on the print site without compromising quality and aggressively build a great online site and consumer destination.

Sulzberger should recognize that online and print are distinct but ultimately very complementary products.

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Here’s a more favorable view of Sulzberg’s remarks from Sebastien Provencher at Praized.

One Response to “More Thoughts on the No-Print NY Times”

  1. Malcolm Lewis Says:

    Expansion of your comment re eprint – maybe I’m rehashing old ideas, but has any newspaper seriously considered print-on-demand? We all print lengthy electronic documents so we can read them offline and spare our eyes. It becomes especially interesting (and feasible) if you can also specify which sections you care about so that you spare the rain forests and only print the stuff you want (eg I might not care about any of the sports stuff except golf but I always want page one and the editorials). Should be easy enough to create/edit a profile based on the standard newspaper TOC. This on-demand approach shifts the production cost (print and paper) to the consumer and actually makes the product more usable. And of course the print-on-demand version includes all the ads in the “print” edition.

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