Friday, July 17, 2009


Google, MSN, and Yahoo and other aggregators are cited by newspaper executives are harming newspapers. But what have they actually done? It is important to have a realistic understanding of their effects if one is to fashion strategies for the future of newspapers and news organizations.

Aggregators carry news stories from major news services and thus make international and national public affairs, entertainment and sports news widely available. The headline news on the aggregators’ home pages is becoming the primary news provider for those less interested in news and the online sections are well-used by news consumers who want more news or more timely news than appears in their daily newspaper.

Aggregators and others sites carrying content from news services are now contributing about 20 percent of the revenue of Associated Press, for example, taking some financial pressure off newspapers to fund the cooperative on their own. Other news services are also gaining income from online operators, thus helping them keep prices lower for newspapers as well.

So how do aggregators news harm newspapers? They harms papers to the extent that some less committed newspaper readers are willing to substitute their local paper with a news sources that don’t cover their cities. Some are willing to do so and this is taking some subscribers and single copy purchasers away from newspapers. U.S. newspapers have lost approximately 6 million circulation since 2000, but about half of that was circulation of the 70 competing newspapers or second editions papers that have been closed since the millennium. So one can thus say that at least 3 million people have decided to use other news sources.

Aggregators are also accused of STEALING value through their search functions and links to newspaper sites. Certainly the aggregators are CREATING value with the technique but are they taking value in violation of copyright or norms of content use? The answer is “no” because they do not represent the material as their own and direct those searching to the newspapers own sites, where they are exposed to advertising sold by the online newspapers.

Newspapers are now getting between 7-10 readers online for every reader they have in print. This plays an important role in making their sites attractive to advertisers, a development that generated the $3.2 billion in online advertising revenue that newspapers received in 2008.

Newspapers, of course, could stop the aggregators from linking to their content by putting it behind walls and charging for its use. If they did so, the aggregators could not link to it legally or technically without users encountering a pay or registration wall. So why haven’t newspapers done this until now? Frankly, because they get more readers and more advertising income by offering the material free.

Publishers are increasingly arguing that they should turn newspaper sites into paying sites and they have been holding joint discussion about how that might happen and whether it would be beneficial to do so simultaneously. This has raised some antitrust concern, but it raises real and significant questions of what such a strategy would accomplish.

In my estimation it is not as easy answer to the challenges newspapers face and has some elements that put its effectiveness in doubt. This is primarily because it is uncertain what existing readers will do. Will they subscribe to print AND online? Will they stay with print only? Or will they drop print?

The first option would be financially beneficial, but is likely to attract a limited number of readers unless the joint pricing is so attractive that it produces little new income for the newspaper firm. If that is the case the benefit of the strategy is reduced. The latter option would be very damaging to papers because print advertising creates more value than online advertising and prices for print ads would decline more than would be gained online.

It also needs to be recognized that people who do not currently buying newspapers are unlikely to buy subscriptions to online news sites. Thus, creating a paid model will likely reduce the boosted audience that free online news currently provides. This would have a negative effect on online audience and the increasing revenue that is being obtained from online advertising.

But what of heavy news users? As I have written in other entries in this blog, heavy users tend to be promiscuous and move between many online news sites. A commonly used system for micropayments would be necessary or these heavy users will reduce their use of multiple sites if each requires separate payment registration. Even with such a system in place, it is unlikely that more than 5-10 percent of the newspaper purchasing population would regularly use such a system.

Moving to a paid online model will not be as easy as agreeing that everyone should switch to paid on January 1 next year. It will require considerable strategic thinking and providing new types of value for consumers if it is to be successful. Even then, the benefits for newspapers will vary significantly depending upon the size, location, and competitive situation of individual newspapers.