Kurtz: Papers Had “No Choice” But To Go Online

Earlier today, Howard Kurtz held his weekly chat where he covered such issues as the Post’s buy-out situation, ways newspapers can be more cost effective, and potential online revenue. Some excerpts:

    Baltimore MD: Howard: Glad you didn’t take the buyout! But in reading your column about the Post’s retrenchment, I was once again puzzled by something. Why did newspapers such as the Post and the NY Times rush headlong into putting their product on the Web before knowing how they could make it pay? The result has been to create a new generation of readers who won’t shell out a measly 50 cents a day to buy the paper because they can get it free online. I know you have said the Web extends the Post’s reach nationally, but frankly, what good does that do if the flagship product keeps losing readers and advertising? Thanks.

    Howard Kurtz: Well, the truth is they had no choice. The Web is the future, and newspapers (along with networks, magazines and other Old Media folks) had to get in on the action. Among other things, the Web enables us to constantly update stories and post video, which you can’t do in a once-a-day print edition.
    At the same time, you are giving away your product for free (except for what revenue you can wring from banner ads). I had once thought that people would be more than happy to pay pennies a day for the privilege of reading washingtonpost.com or nytimes.com or other quality sites, but experiments with charging, even for premium content, have mostly been a flop. So newspapers like The Post remain trapped in this dilemma.

    Shelton, Wash.: OK, I am probably showing my profound ignorance of what newspaper readers actually read, but surely there is a way to save money without cutting the news division? The A section (minus the op-ed pieces) is essential for its investigative reporting. Metro (minus the columnists) is essential for people in DC for the same reason. But the world would be a better place if someone put a match to the editorial pages of the Post, the Sports section simply cannot compete with the blogs for local teams — contrast the high quality analytical baseball blogs with the Post’s coverage — and SI and ESPN for national sports news, and the Style section is just froth. So if the Post is going to make cuts, why not cut those sections?

    Howard Kurtz: I think a lot of people buy newspapers for the sportswriters. That would be a sure-fire way of losing plenty of readers. One of the great things about newspapers is that they are a smorgasbord. One person might passionately want to read the likes of Michael Wilbon and Tom Boswell, another might pay no attention to sports but care deeply about reports from foreign correspondents, and a third might be totally focused on arts and entertainment. We get flooded with complaints when we cut a single comic strip. So it’s safe to assume that everything in the paper has a constituency.

    Why not a subscription model?: I’d bet that of the 9 million online readers, a healthy percentage of us would pay a little, say a buck per month, to read the Post.

    If, say, a third did, that’s $36MM a year gross for a product with no physical costs like paper, ink, or delivery. Not a bad business.

    Howard Kurtz: The question is, what percentage? And I don’t think The Post wants to take the gamble of finding out what that figure is. Plus, let’s be optimstic and say that one-third of the current online readers would subscribe. That would mean kissing 6 million readers goodbye, which would make the Web site far less attractive to advertisers.

And, as Romenesko points out, Kurtz explains why he didn’t take the paper’s buyout package.