Newspapers Must Grow Digital Fast Enough to Offset Print Declines

At UBS Media Conference: New York Times, Gannett, McClatchy, Washington Post

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When most of the country's biggest newspaper companies gave presentations at the annual UBS media conference this week, the common vision that emerged was digital revenue as fix -- not way down the road but in time to stanch the bleeding in traditional newsprint.
Janet L. Robinson
Janet L. Robinson

"While we believe print will continue to be a viable medium for many years to come, overall print advertising and circulation have been declining," said Janet L. Robinson, president-CEO of the New York Times Co. "Therefore our job is to grow our digital profits quickly enough to outpace print declines."

The gathered companies' stated tactics for getting there -- such as focusing on local advertisers in print and online, offering new editorial and advertising products in print and online, partnering with digital powers, and buying online properties -- gave Gary Pruitt, McClatchy's chairman and president-CEO, enough confidence about next year to get a little philosophical.

'Dread and ecstasy'
"It would probably be what social critic Frederic Jameson called the postmodern sublime, which he called the simultaneous apprehension of dread and ecstasy," Mr. Pruitt said, predicting earnings growth in 2008 despite continued revenue decay. "That's probably what we're all living in this postmodern world -- the simultaneous apprehension of dread and ecstasy -- so we'll set sail on that postmodern sublime in 2008 for better results."

For companies whose digital revenue typically represents a small slice of the overall pie, it still seems a little early to even apprehend ecstasy. But let's not quibble; getting to 10%, as the New York Times Co. said it's done this year, is still a solid achievement.

Gannett said one of the greatest opportunities is developing niche sites with social-networking capabilities, citing its recently introduced CincyMoms.com and IndyMoms.com. Its metro papers also are adding "robust" community sections to act like small papers, accompanied by microsite companions, said Sue Clark-Johnson, president of the newspaper division.

Another upside
For the Washington Post Co., the print-advertising outlook is just as serious -- but perhaps not so overwhelming as it would have been years ago. And the biggest upside doesn't appear to lie in online media.

"The Post is large, and it'll have a decided influence on our business results in the future," said Donald E. Graham, chairman-CEO. "But starting in 2008, more than half our revenues will come from education." Already in the third quarter of this year, the Kaplan education business for the first time contributed more than half of the company's revenue.

"Media businesses have had good cash-flow characteristics and still do," Mr. Graham added. "But reinvesting in traditional media businesses, buying more, has not been rewarding. Reinvesting in carefully selected education companies has been tremendously rewarding -- and we are not running out of opportunities."
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