Digital convergence: News, mobile, tablets, social couponing, location-based services, RFID tags, gaming. My geezer head spins just thinking about all this, but look: All these things will not stay in separate silos. Why do you think AOL invested $50 million or more launching Patch in 500 markets, without a business model that makes sense to anyone? What’s coming down the pike is new intersections between all of these digital developments, and somehow, news is always in the picture because it’s at the top of people’s lists of content needs, right after email and search. There are business opportunities in tying all of these things together, so there are opportunities for news enterprises to be part of the action. Some attempts to find synergies will work, and some won’t.
But imagine for a moment: personalized news delivered to me on my tablet or smartphone, tailored to my demographics, preferences, and location; coupon offers and input from my social network, delivered on the same basis; the ability to interact with RFID tags on merchandise (and on just about anything else); more and more ability not only to view ads but to do transactions on tablets and phones — all of these delivered in a entertaining interfaces with gaming features (if I like games) or not (if I don’t). In other words: news delivered to me as part of a total environment aware of my location, my friends, my interests and preferences, essentially in a completely new online medium — not a web composed of sites I can browse at my leisure, but a medium delivered via a device or devices that understand me and understand what I want to know, including the news, information and commercial offers that are right for me. All of this is way too much to expect in 2011, but as a prediction, I think we’ll start to see some of the elements begin to come together, especially on the iPad.
The Associated Press clearinghouse for news. Lots of questions here: Will be it nonprofit or for-profit? Who will put up the money? Who will be in charge of it? What will it actually do? It will probably take all year to get the operation organized and launched, but I’m going to stick with the listing of opportunities I outlined when news of the clearinghouse broke. I continue to believe that the clearinghouse concept has the potential to transform the way that news content is generated, distributed and consumed. (Disclosure: I’m working on a project with the University of Missouri to explore potential business models enabled by news clearinghouses.)
Embracing real digital strategies. Among newspaper companies, Journal Register will continue to point the way: CEO John Paton ardently evangelizes for digital-first thinking — read his presentation to the recent (Nieman-cosponsored) INMA Transformation of News Summit, if you haven’t seen it. Is there another newspaper company CEO who agrees with Paton’s mantra, “Be Digital First and Print Last”? I doubt it, because what it means, in Patton’s words, is that you “put the digital people in charge, and stop listening to the newspaper people.” Most newspaper groups pay lip service to “digital first,” but in reality they’re focused on the daily print edition. And that’s why audience attention will continue to go to new media unencumbered by print, like Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, Patch, Gawker Media, and hosts of others. So for a prediction: Journal Register will outsource most of its printing, sell most of its real estate, bring the audience into its newsrooms with more news cafes like their first one in Torrington, Conn. It will announce by year end that 25 percent of its revenue is from digital sources. It will also launch online-only startups in cities and towns near its existing markets, perhaps with niche print spinoffs. And finally, toward the end of 2011, we’ll see some reluctant and tentative emulation of Paton’s strategies among a few other newspaper groups.
Newspaper advertising revenue. An extrapolation of the 2010 trend (see my 2010 scorecard) would mean 2011 quarters of, say gains of 2 percent, 4 percent, 6 percent and 8 percent. But for that to happen, marketers would have to decide, during Q4 of 2011, to direct 8 percent more money into advertising in a medium that continues to report “strategic” cuts in press runs and paid print circulation, that is not finding fresh eyeballs online, that has an audience profile getting older every year, and that has done little R&D or innovation to discover a digital future for itself. With sexy new opportunities to advertise on tablets and smartphones coming along daily, why would any brand, retailer, or advertising agency be looking to spend more in print? My prediction is for a very flat year, with the quarterly totals (for print plus online revenue) coming in at Q1: +1.5%, Q2: +2.0%, Q3: no change and Q4: -3%. That final quarter will revert to negative territory primarily because of major shifts in retail budgets to tablet and smartphone platforms and to digital competitors like Groupon.
Newspaper online ad revenue. This has been a bright spot in 2010, with gains of 4.9 percent, 13.9 percent, and 10.7 percent so far. Assume another gain in Q4. But there are several problems. First, at most newspapers a big fraction of so-called online revenue is hitched to print programs with online components, upsells, added values, or bonuses. So there’s no way to tell whether the reported numbers are real, representing actual gains purely in ads purchased on web sites, whether there’s a lot of creative accounting going on to make the online category look better than it actually is, or whether it would even exist without the print component. Secondly, there’s a lot of new competition at the local level for dollars that retailers earmark for web marketing. Groupon, alone, will do close to $1 billion in revenue this year, compared with about $3 billion total online revenue for all newspapers combined. Add the “Groupon clones” like LivingSocial, and the social couponing business is probably already at about 50 percent of newspaper online revenue, and could well pass it in 2011, very much at newspapers’ expense. That’s why I predict newspaper online revenue will be: Q1: +5.0 percent, Q2: +3.0 percent, Q3: no change and Q4: no change.
Newspaper circulation. The trendline here has been down, down, down, every six-month reporting period ending March 31 and September 30. Complicating the picture: newspapers have been selling combo packages, ABC-qualified, where a single subscriber counts for two because they are buying (sometimes on a forced basis) both a 7-day print subscription and a facsimile digital edition. Lots of inflated and un-real circulation will show up in the 2011 numbers. But if we look at print circulation alone, which ABC will continue to break out, demographics alone dictate a continuation of the negative trend. My prediction: down 5 percent in each of the spring and fall six-month ABC reporting periods. That will mean that by year’s end, print newspaper penetration will fall to about one in three households (a long way down from its postwar peak of 134 newspapers sold per 100 households in 1946).
Online news readership. There are a couple of ways to look at this. For newspaper websites, NAA recently switched from Nielsen to Comscore because they liked Comscore’s numbers better. As a base measure, Comscore is showing about 105 million monthly unique visitors and 4 billion pageviews to newspaper sites, with the average visitor spending 3.5 minutes per visit. Prediction: all three of those metrics will stay flat (plus or minus 10 percent) during 2011. The other way to look at it is: Where are Americans getting their news? The Pew Research Center looks at this on an annual basis, and in 2010 showed online, radio, and newspapers more or less tied as news sources for Americans. Is there any doubt where this is going? In 2011, Pew might add mobile as a distinct source, but it will show online clearly ahead of newspapers and radio, with mobile ascendant.
Newspaper chains. Nobody can afford to buy anybody else, and no non-newspaper companies want to buy newspapers. There might be some mergers, but really, there are no strategic opportunities for consolidation in this industry, because there are no major efficiencies or revenue opportunities to be gained. Everybody will just muddle along in 2011, with the exception of Journal Register, which as noted above will move into adjacent markets with digital products and generally show the way the rest should follow.
Stocks. The major indices will be up 15 to 20 percent by September, but they’ll drop back to a break-even position by the end of 2011. Newspaper stocks will not beat the market. Others: AOL and Google will beat the market; Yahoo and Microsoft will not.