MIGRATION IN PROGRESS: FROM PRINT TO THE WEB
By Pranay Gupte
(Published in The Hindu, India, June 30, 2010)
I was dining with John Seeley in the Grill Room of The Four Seasons Restaurant, the one place in New York where the city’s elite habitually congregate for their “power lunch” five days a week. Mr. Seeley, like others in the wood-paneled, Philip Johnson-designed room, is a player – which is to say that, as founding editor of The Wall Street Journal’s new “Greater New York” daily supplement, he’s someone whose presence is immediately noticed and whose attention is sought, even by other influential figures in a power obsessed metropolis like New York.
Mr. Seeley, a trim, bespectacled man in his early 40’s, wears his power lightly; he’s an old friend, and one of the finest editors I’ve worked with. He takes his work very seriously, not the least because his new section is competing head-on with The New York Times’ formidable local report, both in print and on the Web.
One of the topics we discussed was the decline of print publications and the question of whether major newspapers should put up a “pay wall” for the content they offered on the Web. The proprietor of Mr. Seeley’s paper, Rupert Murdoch, is an enthusiast of the pay-for-content concept; The New York Times has announced that it will start charging visitors to its popular Web site for much of its content.
This topic may not have dominated conversation at every table of The Four Seasons Restaurant. But it would be safe to assume that it was lodged in the minds of the media tycoons there. On this day, the restaurant’s other diners included a variety of top media figures, including Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, and host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS; he was lunching with Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, who privately advises media companies. (Newsweek has put itself up for sale, and the prospects of a financially viable future seem grim.)
Mortimer Zuckerman, publisher of The New York Daily News was there, too; his paper’s print circulation has been steadily declining, as is that of its Murdoch-owned tabloid rival, The New York Post. In another corner, the former US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was eating with Vernon Jordan, arguably the closest friend of former President Bill Clinton, and a former member of the board of Dow Jones, which publishes The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Rubin is co-chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, a prestigious think tank whose Web publications have been winning awards as well as more and more visitors. Still another diner was a top executive of Condé Nast, which recently shut down the bible of the food industry, the monthly magazine Gourmet, and is reviving it as a Web offering.
“Print versus Web” is a topic that has upturned the media industry in the United States, and in many other countries, resulting in significant job losses for print journalists. In 2007, there were 6,580 daily newspaper around the world, including nearly 1,500 in the US; by mid 2010, the overall figure is down by 500, while newspaper revenues have declined by a fifth on account of an advertising fall precipitated by the global recession, as well as a migration of many advertisers to the Web.
A prominent example of a print paper opting to transform itself entirely into a Web publication is the venerable Christian Science Monitor, the Boston-based newspaper that was founded in 1908 by Mary Baker Eddy. It shut down its daily print edition on March 27, 2009, citing losses of $18.9 million per year versus $12.5 million in annual revenue. It now offers content online on its Web site and via e-mail. John Yemma, the paper’s editor, says that the move to go digital was made because the management recognized that the Christian Science Monitor’s reach would be greater online than in print. He says that in the next five years the Monitor will aim to increase its online readership to 25 million page-views, from the current figure of five million.
In the United Arab Emirates, the daily business daily, Emirates 24/7 – which is owned by the Dubai Government company, DMI – announced a few days ago that it, too, would terminate its print edition. Like the Christian Science Monitor, Emirates 24/7 will be published daily solely as a Web newspaper.
While newspapers generally are suffering from a decline in advertising and subscription revenues, rising newsprint costs simultaneously besets them. US East Coast prices – the barometer of global rates for newsprint – rose to nearly $600 per tonne in January 2010, compared to $464 in August 2009. Moreover, new contracts concluded after March 2010 include an additional $50 per tonne. (Indian publishers for whom newsprint constitutes the single largest cost element -- accounting for 40 to 60 percent of total cost, are bracing themselves for this rise, even though newsprint is currently exempt from customs duty; publishers import 50 percent of the 1.8 million tonnes of newsprint used annually.)
Here’s another set of statistics that should be sobering for the print industry: The online ad business, excluding mobile ads, is set to expand to $34.4 billion in 2014 from $24.2 billion in 2009, according to a report released last week by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The same report says that newspapers continue to suffer from a decline in advertising revenue. According to the Newspaper Association of America, print advertising revenue dropped 28.6 percent in 2009 to $24.82 billion. The PricewaterhouseCoopers report estimates that print advertising in newspapers will drop to $22.3 billion by 2014. It also estimates that mobile advertising in North America will quadruple from $414 million in 2009 to $1.6 billion in 2014.
With the galloping fortunes of high-technology driven portable gadgets such as Apple’s iPad and the new iPhone4, media organizations clearly see the advantage of pushing content through telephony. This doesn’t augur well for the print industry, although, of course, its decline may not suggest imminent demise.
Still, as The Wall Street Journal’s John Seeley told me, smart media organizations are revving up their digital technology. “You need to be where the readers are,” he said. The Journal is in the comfortable position of having a daily print circulation of 2.09 million, compared to 952,000 for The New York Times. Neither paper is taking its relatively high print circulation for granted – both are spending fresh sums of money on boosting print circulation through ads and provocative marketing. But both are also accelerating their Web operations. They hear the future approaching rapidly, and its sounds do not necessarily include the reassuring rustle of newsprint.
(Pranay Gupte is a veteran international journalist and author. His next book is on India and the Middle East.)