Archive for October, 2008

Writing off Mondays

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

I had lunch the other day with a pal who’s in the news business, and we spent most of our time hashing over the sorry state of the industry. At one point I predicted that in 2009 a big daily paper somewhere would close down, and that another would become a trailblazer by announcing it would no longer print a Monday paper, opting instead for an online edition only.

When I returned home after lunch, I discovered I’d gotten one detail wrong. Turns out The Christian Science Monitor announced the very same day that it will go exclusively to online editions in 2009 — not just on Mondays, but every weekday. Its weekend paper will still be printed, albeit as a magazine-style offering.

I think that announcement offers a peek into the future. The number of newspapers publishing printed editions seven days a week will be reduced to a handful much more quickly than you think. My friend already wonders why the Raleigh News & Observer, the newspaper she’s read all her life, even bothers with a Monday edition anymore. She’s right: It’s thin and flimsy, with almost nothing to make it worth fetching off the sidewalk.

But any newspaper executive these days is like a cartoon character standing on an ice floe that has suddenly cleaved itself in two, leaving him with a foot on each half as they slowly drift apart, paralyzed by indecision because he doesn’t know which way to jump. Publishing and delivering a print edition is an expensive proposition, and advertising revenue is fading fast (as is circulation). The executive knows that’s not the ice floe to go with — but something like 90 percent of the industry’s income still comes from the print edition. The other floe is the better long-term bet, but for the moment it’s not big enough to keep him above water.

That’s why a game-changing step is in order right now. The N&O, or another paper somewhere with an equally limp Monday edition (which is to say, just about every other paper in America), should sacrifice that day’s paper as a tentative step toward the future. Eliminating that edition will save newsprint costs (typically the second-highest expenditure on the balance sheet, after payroll) and distribution costs. Also, staff could be reduced. Sure, the advertising revenue from that edition would evaporate, but it’s not much in the first place and there’s a good chance some of it would simply shift to another day rather than disappear altogether. The ultimate goal would be to find the right mix of printed editions and online-only editions, á la the Christian Science Monitor — maybe having an actual newspaper on ad-heavy Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, for instance, and online editions the rest of the week.

The race-against-the-clock alternative — which almost all newspaper executives seem to favor — is to stick with their cost-intensive, seven-day print editions until the Internet hopefully becomes the cash cow their publishing operations once were.

Under that strategy, the first half of my prediction for 2009 may well come true.