What a first half of 2010 it’s been. While I take a break through the end of that first half, here’s nine questions as we move collectively in 2H, 2010:
1) With Clay Shirky and Nick Carr duking it out (“Does the Internet Make Your Smarter or Dumber“) in the Wall Street Journal, isn’t it the right thing for both of them to do to donate their brains to science? Not immediately, of course, but down the digital road.
2) Our print newspapers better understanding the aging niche they serve? Breaking news today from L.A. Times publicity: “L.A. Times to Bring Back its TV Guide.” Back from the dead of 2007, one of many TV tabs to meet its demise, the new one will be punched up, up to 44 pages from 28, and replete with 24-hour daily grid listings, puzzles galore, and a dedicated sports programming page. Hard to imagine anyone under 30 (40?) using a TV tab instead of the cable guide. Next up: LARGE print TV tabs — and obits.
3) Who will be first through door #3? We’ve now seen a return to small profitability at newspaper companies, while YOY revenues continue to disappoint. Yes, the rate of loss is slowing, but they are still losing revenue, unlike other media. So the cutting isn’t yet over. And these companies, which must remain profitable to satisfy new owners and more-vigilant lenders, have three choices of what to do with any positive cash flowing. #1 Pay down debt. Big issue for those (other than Belo and Scripps, which emerged debtless as their companies divided) companies who know that the tough road ahead simply won’t sustain much debt service. #2 Increase profit. Yes, no one’s really happy to be in single digits. #3 Invest in product. That’s a tough one, given the pressures of debt and profit. One big question here: Will they invest in the next generation of mobile products, and the different skill sets necessary to create and produce them?
4) How patient will the Angelo Gordons, the new lords of publishing, be? They like the return to profitability, but are deeply concerned about those bad 2009 comparisons. (Newspaper overall advertising was down 9.7%, with online advertising showing growth of 4.9%, a little less than overall online ad growth.) Question they are asking: Is there a sustainable, profitable future here, future meaning 2-5 years, and, so far, they are unsure of the answer.
5) Are we beginning to see the Last Man Standing strategy play out in the U.S.’s biggest cities? The New York Times is planning on building out 10-15 regional editions, on the model of its Chicago (partnered with the Chicago News Cooperative) and Bay Area (partnered with Bay Area Citizen) models. Now the Wall Street Journal is renewing its previously announced regional forays, into Chicago, L.A. and perhaps other places. WSJ CEO Les Hinton noted this week that “we’ve done focus groups and see a growing antipathy among high-end readers, towards what’s happened to their local newspapers.” One publisher’s nightmare is another’s opportunity.
I call this the Last Man Standing strategy, with the Times and the Journal parsing out national/local, print/digital editions — and learning how to sell targeted local ads better. We may well be headed into a world where those with the newsprint habit will maintain their habit, but like a smoker, cut down on it. So, get one print edition delivered, which at least seems to cover national and local, rather than two. Greener solution, and one that the iPad Era will probably hasten. That new world could include some print at the top — Journal and Times — and at the bottom, my smaller community daily or weekly.
6) When will most dailies create reasonable iPad editions? The big guys have jumped ahead — once again (my piece over at Nieman explores the topic more thoroughly, “The Newsonomics of tablet ad readiness,”) , but regional newspaper companies may get into the fray before the end of year. Verve Wireless has been the main go-to company for dailies going up on the smartphone. Verve tells me that it’s recently added the Blackberry to its iPhone application, and is now moving on to Android. Then: iPad. So, with the ability to save on centralized tech development, some companies may be waiting on Verve. Big question: How good will the Verve product be?
7) How much of your news site’s traffic is coming from social media? At Netgain, 2010, Scribd’s Tammy Nam said that the site was now deriving 50% of its traffic from social network sites. Now that’s a lot higher than news sites, which tell me they’ve seen anywhere from five to 20% of their traffic coming from Facebook, Twitter and others. Social Media Optimization is something all sites now need to focus on.
8) In the crazy-quilt world of new syndication, might we see the Los Angeles Times re-join its erstwhile partner the Washington Post in a new combo with surging Bloomberg, East Coast, West Coast, and all around the business world? The Times has never been comfortable, pre- or post-Zell as part of the Tribune empire, and bankruptcy (if ever resolved) may lead to its exit.
9) Won’t iPad revenue be an unexpected growth line for some publishers in 2010? A handful of news companies got out of the starting gate quickly, including Reuters with three beginning apps. Reuters’ Alisa Bowen, senior vice president and head of consumer publishing, tells me that she expects “that advertising on the iPad will grow to 50% of our total mobile ad revenue before the end of the year. This is 50% based on dollar value, not number of campaigns or impressions, obviously, so we are seeing not only a rapid growth, but an impressive yield for the premium user experience.” Curiously, Reuters is also seeing good traffic from iPad browsers, not just its apps: “We’ve seen some very stunning analysis in recent days about the web browsing traffic on iPads, which is ramping at a substantial pace.”