Posted by: structureofnews | September 23, 2010

Does Size Matter?

Never a dull moment in the Wall Street Journal-New York Times verbal battles.

The latest salvo comes from Journal editor Robert Thomson, with the provocative comment that “nationally, there’s no contest now. We’re more than twice as big as The New York Times. They’re not a serious competitor.”  And it is true that the Journal’s circulation is twice as much as the Times’.  Jeff Jarvis rides to the NYT’s defence with the excellent point that the Times reaches 43 million people online vs. the Journal’s 16 million.  And so it goes.

Although perhaps the better question is, does it really matter?

At a basic level of advertising revenue, of course, it does.  In print, the circulation – or readership – number helps you set ad rates; online, additional traffic and page views can translate into more dollars in the bank.  But that doesn’t take into account how much it costs to get that circulation or traffic, and hence what it really means for the bottom line.

This may seem obvious, but it doesn’t seem so to everyone.  Jarvis – but not to single him out, because many others take a similar line – goes on to say that:

The New York Times has roughly two and a half times more readers than the Journal. That translates to two and a half times more influence, two and a half times more relationships, a two-and-a-half-time bigger brand.

And it’s certainly true that those relationships could be turned into revenue – in a way, you can look at generating traffic as a way of acquiring potential customers.   But to pursue size for its own sake doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Jarvis has been anti-paywall for a long time, although he’s moderated his view.  But of course one major reason for the Journal’s smaller online audience is its subscription model.

That is the price of the pay wall. It may be a price worth paying. The New York Times is, of course, piling up bricks for its wall now. But off in the open field, no bricks in sight, stands Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger with 37 million readers online wondering whether he could soon run the largest newspaper site in the world.

Of course, the last time I checked, the Guardian was losing 100,000 pounds a day, or nearly 36 million for the year.  And the Times is on track to lose money this quarter as well – although digital advertising is expected to grow 14%, that’s not enough to offset declines in print advertising and increases in operating costs. I don’t know how the Journal is doing, and since it’s now part of a much bigger company, the numbers may not be all that illuminating anyway.

I don’t wish either the Guardian or the Times (or the Journal) ill; they’re all great news organizations, and we should get more of their work.  But fixating on the size of an audience isn’t the most helpful thing.  Some of the best work in the world is done by very small organizations who have outsized influence and impact.  They may even be profitable.

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Responses

  1. [...] time I checked, the price of the Guardian’s innovation was pretty steep: A loss of 100,000 pounds a day.  [...]


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