That’s the question I used to open my Business of Journalism class, back when I started teaching it at Hong Kong University in 2005, with the idea that it would help students think through the business model they were dependent on. Some students would talk about subscriptions; others about advertising, but in a very broad way, without say making the distinction between display and classified. All in all, a good opening to discuss the complexities of the business model, and how oftentimes the people who read us didn’t pay the bills.
The question popped into my head again listening to a lunch talk by Gordon Crovitz, a former colleague at Dow Jones and now one of the founders of Journalism Online, which offers its PressPlus product that helps news organizations set up pay meters to bring in subscription revenue.
Advertising revenue, he notes, is falling sharply, and isn’t likely to recover. So that points to turning increasingly to circulation as a revenue driver. I don’t disagree at all, although I have serious doubts that circ dollars will bring news organizations anything close to the kind of money they’ve been used to. Not that Gordon is suggesting any different; I suspect we agree that we still need to restructure our industry and figure out new products and processes.
But he does put an interesting framing/construction on a world where news organizations are much more dependent on circulation to pay the bills. As he puts it, we’ll go from a world where we cared about advertisers to one where we care about readers.
That’s not to say that editors used to – or still do – pander to advertisers simply because they still pay the bulk of the bills. (Although I’m sure that happens in various places.) But it does torque priorities when you know where the money is coming from. Many major business newspapers, for example, used to have advertising columns – not because people are dying to read about advertising campaigns, but because ad execs will pick up papers that run stories about them, and it’s important to be read by people who make recommendations about where advertising should run. That’s not entirely pandering; it’s understanding readership patterns of a key demographic.
Similarly, knowing where ad dollars are – whether in fashion, B2B, autos – shifts newsroom resources and priorities. Not necessarily in a bad way, but it does influence where the newsroom puts its attention.
So in a world where we only need to think about readers – and not mass readers, but deeply interested and committed readers on your particular area of coverage – how will editors choose to allocate limited resources? Gordon thinks it’ll bring about a renewed focus on distinctive, non-commoditized coverage; and that better metrics will give much better feedback on what readers really want. He may well be right – and that would be a good thing, if true.
Imagine: Actually being paid by the people who read us most avidly. What will they think of next?