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It's hard to gauge the impact of New York Times (NYSE:NYT) and Wall Street Journal (NASDAQ:NWS) moves into metro markets. They could be simple, print retention strategies aimed, at holding on to valuable print readers -- the magnets for still-lucrative print advertising -- for as long as possible.

Longer-term, it could be a Last Man Standing strategy, figuring that newspaper readers may well scale back their daily reading to a single paper, as they increasingly go digital. Or, it could be toehold, for an expanded digital strategy, adding local options to their national and global products.

So far, all indications are that the simplest explanation -- print retention, small amount of growth -- is the driving purpose. That makes sense: 85% of the overall revenues of these companies is still tied up in print. Give the readers another reason to pay a lot of money for the print sub, and you can hold on to more of them. The regional editions -- the Times in the Bay Area and Chicago and the Journal's announced one in San Francisco (and L.A. and Chicago, perhaps, as well) -- also give the papers better regional ad targeting, especially in categories like finance, technology and luxury.

So far, my reading of the Times' new coverage -- a couple of extra pages in the Friday and Sunday editions -- is that's it not any kind of game-changer. It's good, Times-like coverage, but I doubt that a half dozen stories each of those days (though trumpeted with a Page One "local" sticker) is going to make much of a difference in a buy/don't buy, renew/let it go decision.

Of course, both papers have been in metro markets for a long time. Yet, they've been a supplemental read for newsies, people whose daily education hasn't been complete 'til they've trawled the local metro paper, the Times and/or the Journal.

By definition, that's an older crowd, an elite that has given each of the two papers a few percentage points of household penetration in the cities. The Times hasn't gotten above five percent outside its home market. For examples (from data gained earlier this year):

  • Boston: 2.3% Sunday & 1.6% Daily
  • Fort Myers/Naples: 2.2% Sunday & 1.5% Daily
  • Hartford/New Haven: 3.0% Sunday & 1.9% Daily
  • San Francisco: 2.3% Sunday & 1.6% Daily
  • Washington DC: 2.2% Sunday & 1.5% Daily
  • West Palm Beach: 3.2% Sunday & 2.4% Daily

Given that the Journal's print circulation is now about double the Times -- 2 million to 927,000 -- we'd surmise that the Journal would be two to three times those numbers. (Addendum: A couple of alert readers have noted that about 400,000 of the Journal's 2 million may be online-only subs), bringing down the print-to-print, head-to-head comparison somewhat. Worth taking into account.) That's partly because of the number of its readers and partly because the business-oriented Journal's penetration in New York should be considerably less than the Times, still in part a hometown, general interest paper for New York. The Times home market has been accounting for about 40% of its Sunday sales and about 45% of its daily sales.

So if that's today, let's look at tomorrow.

The Times and Journal aren't entering these markets in a vacuum. We've never seen such activity in local markets as we're now seeing. From public radio stations getting newly news-aggressive to Politico's big DC move to growing start-ups to metro and state investigative watchdogs to the Examiners expanding, we've never seen such ferment around local news. My sense: as metro dailies have cut staff and space, they've left their flanks open, newly emboldening would-be competitors for readers and advertisers.

In fact, the potential connections between and among new and old players -- as just one example, the Times, for instance, has been having continuing talks with KQED, the strong Bay Area public radio station -- are being weighed.

The key here is aggregating as much high-quality content under your own brand -- Journal, Times, whoever -- as cheaply as possible. In the Bay Area, the Times is adding coverage without adding full-time staff; in Chicago, it has partnered with the new, and intriguing, Chicago news coop. In general, neither the Times nor the Journal can afford to add much high-salaried staff to fuel these editions. So partnering is key, though dicey in execution, with logistics, standards, immediacy and other issues always to be worked out between editors traditonally internally focused.

The one exception: the Journal looks like it is adding 12 reporters to a NYC edition. That makes more sense. It's in line with the Journal's head-to-head competition with the Times as it targets the Times' readers and advertisers -- medium-hanging fruit for the Journal. Further, it's personal for Murdoch. Plus, it's worth sending the message of "we're hiring," as the Times cuts back another 100 people in the newsroom. Psychological warfare.

I'm still expecting outside/in, inside/out web national/local products, maybe later in 2010. Why not a Journal or Times module or two on or KQED or MPR News? Why not a Bay Area module on or Why not more NPR modules on non-public radio sites? Toggle on, toggle off, depending on your local preferences. The target: increase time on site for both parties, as much as possible.