Publisher Aaron Kushner insists that he doesn't care whether people read the Register in print or online - just so long as they're subscribers. "It's a subscriber-first business model," he said during a newsroom get-together at the Riverside Press-Enterprise, which Register parent Freedom Communications is buying for $25 million. "We do it because we believe advertisers follow subscribers, not the other way around." Kushner, who is the CEO of Freedom, insists that the way to get subscribers is to bulk up. Since buying the Register last year, he's added more than 350 employees, including familiar names from the LAT (basketball writer Mark Heisler is the most recent hire). While it's nice to see so many editorial folks finding respectable work, there's little evidence that the strategy has moved the needle. On the contrary, as of last spring weekday print circulation is down 2 percent to 159,411, and online readership is likely to fall sharply because of the paper's subscriber-only pay wall. (Circulation for the Register's 26 community weeklies is said to be up.) Kushner's insistence that he has nothing against digital is like House Republicans saying they have nothing against reforming health care. Just get it done on my old-fashioned terms and we'll be square. But in this very different media world, the old ways don't work anymore. Katharine Viner, deputy editor of the Guardian, recently presented a thoughtful case for journalism on the Web:
Digital is not about putting up your story on the web. It's about a fundamental redrawing of journalists' relationship with our audience, how we think about our readers, our perception of our role in society, our status. We are no longer the all-seeing all-knowing journalists, delivering words from on high for readers to take in, passively, save perhaps an occasional letter to the editor. Digital has wrecked those hierarchies almost overnight, creating a more levelled world, where responses can be instant, where some readers will almost certainly know more about a particular subject than the journalist, where the reader might be better placed to uncover a story.
A paywalled website is just print in another form, making collaboration with the people formerly known as the audience much more difficult. You can't take advantage of the benefits of the open web if you're hidden away. The narrative in defence is that good journalism must be paid for. Well, certainly good journalists must be paid. But these are different things.
Indeed, I would argue that we are confusing two things. Journalists want to be paid, yes. And we want to find business models that make that possible - via advertising, partnerships, donation, cross-subsidy. But how could the future of journalism be safe behind a paywall, when the future of journalism is going on outside them?
As a practical matter, most all of the large daily print newspapers in this country are dying, and the traditional subscription models are simply not practical. The only reason that the transition to digital is taking this long is that some advertisers still prefer having their spreads in print rather than on the Web - and given how frustrating it can be to download the New Yorker or most any other magazine on a tablet, I can see their point. Still, it's just a matter of time, as the metrics keep showing. During the first six months of the year digital ad sales are up sharply, while revenues for the 10 public companies that own domestic newspapers continue a steady decline. From Alan Mutter:
Assuming digital and newspaper sales pursue the same trajectory for the balance of the year, then digital revenues for the full 12 months will be more than twice the revenues produced by newspapers, whose aggregate sales hit a record $49.4 billion as recently as 2005. In a measure of the dizzying pace at which the marketplace is shifting, interactive revenues were $12.5 billion in 2005.