our view

June 30, 2011 |

If some day, why not now?


Layoffs at daily newspapers have become so common that the announcements are no longer taken with shock. That was quite apparent with last week's announcement of 700 additional layoffs in Gannett newspapers across the nation, including 13 in the Des Moines Register newsroom. Subscribers and non-subscribers simply shook their heads in predictable disgust with the fourth round of layoffs since August of 2008.

A few decades ago, some newspaper publishers welcomed the idea of providing news on the Internet, as they thought it would allow for massive expense savings in printing and distribution. Of course, those projections assumed that advertising revenue would stay the same. It didn't. So now with shrinking paid circulation and a sharp decline in advertising revenue, newspapers are forced to cut their number one expense — payroll.

Former Des Moines Register editorial page editor and occasional Cityview columnist Gil Cranberg challenged readers of this newspaper to name another industry that had a product people were willing to pay for and then decided to give it away for free in another form with any success. There is no parallel. The model is insane, and the decision to stick to it is even crazier.

The obvious answer is to charge a nominal fee for online access to the news, and that may still be part of the eventual plan. If even a fraction of the Register's self-reported 1.2 million monthly unique visitors paid a few dollars a month for access, it would have more than covered the payroll of all the recent layoffs, and then some.

Media revenue models have changed successfully. Who would have guessed that people would pay nearly $100 per month for cable TV, or fork out even a few bucks a month for satellite radio? A handful of courageous newspaper publishers are now successfully charging for unique content online. Readers still want news that matters to them, in one form or another. And if it provides enough value to them, they will pay for it.

Opportunities for a revenue model with online content from the Register and other dailies still exist, but not for long if staffing cuts continue and readers no longer see the value.

So what are they waiting for? If some day, why not now? CV