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Raju Narisetti: News and World Wide Web

As the Internet provided a platform for sharing news faster and wider with negligible distribution costs, the newspaper business models that leaned heavily on advertisers for revenues and an elaborate production and distribution infrastructure began to crumble

Published: May 28, 2011 06:39:15 AM IST
Updated: Jun 9, 2011 12:05:14 AM IST
Raju Narisetti: News and World Wide Web
Image: Sebastian John for Forbes India
Raju Narisetti is Managing Editor of The Washington Post and Founding Editor of Mint

Raju Narisetti
The founding editor of Mint, is currently a managing editor of The Washington Post. At The Post, he is responsible for online/mobile content and strategy; its multi-platform editing operations, photo, design, graphics and video staff, as well as social, engagement and interactivity teams. Narisetti’s direct staff at The Post have won three Pulitzer Prizes in the last two years. Earlier, he spent 13 years at The Wall Street Journal, where he was the Editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe and Deputy Managing Editor of the US Wall Street Journal. He is on the board of the World Editors Forum and is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

"You have to do well in order to do good" is an often repeated phrase at The Washington Post but it has never been more relevant to our newsroom or the US media industry than it is in 2011.

After the financial abyss and near-death spiral of 2009, most major US news brands showed in 2010 that they could rebound from one of the worst economic downturns newspapers have faced in recent memory. But that was 2010. Here we are, in the first half of 2011, facing yet another tough financial year and nowhere close to answering the existential question that has dogged all of us for a while now: Whither the future of the news business?

Note, I am saying the future of the news business, not the future of news. Because, despite all the gloom and doom surrounding media, particularly print media, there has never been a better time to be a journalist for The Post. And more people are reading Post journalism now than they have ever before, more than in the heydays of Watergate or since. Indeed, in 2010, 29.3 million readers read some 270 million pages of Post journalism each month, a record for The Washington Post. Of that, 28.1 million did so online and, while we brought in 4.2 million new readers on average each month compared to the previous year, we also lost some 35,000 print subscribers in 2010 alone.

So, what’s the big deal you might ask?

Well, for starters, all 35,000 of the now former print subscribers paid us nearly $275 a year to consume The Washington Post. Our online readers pay zero. The print subscribers we lose are typically loyal readers who spent 40-plus minutes with The Post each day and have done so for years. The majority of online readers — both new and old — are promiscuous, read tiny morsels in under five minutes per visit and think the same Post content that others pay for in print is not worth paying for online.

Meanwhile, The Post, like a few large US newspapers, generates millions in online revenue from advertising. But we also generate tens of millions more from print advertising and circulation. The much anticipated intersection of rising digital revenues and falling print revenues has already turned into a mirage, leaving most of us with a cost structure way out of sync with today’s business reality. What is left is a relentless pressure to cut back on the single most expensive cost centre at media companies: The content creation engine, a.k.a., our newsroom.

And we have done that with great fortitude. The Post newsroom, once 1,100-strong, was at 850 when I took over the task of combining its print and online operations in January 2009. Today, we are at 640, even after adding jobs and roles that never existed in the newsroom before, such as search & traffic editors, mobile editors, engagement editors, social media editors and many bloggers. And we have invested $7 million in a new multi-platform publishing system. All the while, we have cut our newsroom budget by $14 million, including $9.1 million in payroll, without overtly impacting quality. The Post has won five Pulitzer Prizes in this tumultuous period.

While our colleagues on the business side deserve credit for pushing newsrooms to become more nimble in recent years, they have also consistently failed to imagine and then incubate a Craigslist, a Groupon, a Monster.com, let alone a Google or a Facebook. Nor are they any closer today than they were last year in fixing the broken business model of quality journalism. So, while there is still room to cut costs and become more efficient, unless the revenue spigot opens up, the business model will remain broken and the decline of major news brands will only accelerate.

All of which brings us to 2011 and what looks like the start of myriad experiments in search of a fix. The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, with relatively proprietary content, can afford hard pay walls on the Web. And so can many of Rupert Murdoch’s other newspapers, what with News Corp.’s deep pockets to cushion the impact of millions of readers who aren’t paying and going elsewhere. The New York Times has launched its much anticipated digital payment subscription, a metered system that essentially targets heavy users of NYT content, an ambitious and gutsy move by the largest newspaper Web site in America. Scores of other experiments with pay systems are underway in the US and around the world, most too nascent to reach any conclusions.

At The Post, this really isn’t a question about Pay Walls vs. Free Media. It is really about recognising that digital is the future but print is not just the present but also the future as well, at least the foreseeable future. The debate is whether we can do well first, as a healthy business, so we can continue to do good through our journalism and fulfil our core mission: Being the Indispensable Guide to Washington.

Raju Narisetti: News and World Wide Web
Image: Vidyanand kamat

What is clear to us is that our current revenue streams can no longer support our mission. But what is also clear is that there is no single consumer pay model on the Web whose friction won’t meaningfully impact our current $80 million annual digital revenue, let alone widen that spigot. Apple, with its 30 percent cut and desire to own our readers, isn’t the salvation even as the iPad, and other mobile devices, offer one clearly visible line of revenue. Readers do seem to be willing to pay for mobile engaging experiences and interaction with much of the same content that they are reluctant to pay for at a Web site.

Despite no silver bullet on the “how”, the case to charge online readers for content is relatively easy to make, philosophically and pragmatically. And it is one of the few rare issues that Rupert Murdoch and Arthur Sulzberger Jr. can both agree on. Content creation costs money and good content, including all the multimedia that goes with it online, costs a lot of money. And just as paid newspapers haven’t diminished the role of media in society or its reach, paid online sites aren’t going to reduce our impact.  

Yet, here is why revenue from readers is unlikely to be our salvation.

-- A metered model makes your business susceptible to the will of a few readers — those who consume the most articles/pages. Often, less than 5 percent of these kinds of visitors account for nearly 50 percent of your pageviews. And they have very little barriers to exit.

-- Aggregators, like Huffington Post, will still find ways to deliver your content for free and often with more engaging technologies since they don’t have to invest much in content creation.

-- The infrastructure for payment systems, data security, customer service, reader acquisition and retention for digital subscriptions costs a bundle to build and run, yet your consumer price points need to be low, making the return on investment a clear challenge.

-- Our Web sites were to be trusted safe havens protecting, informing and entertaining you amid a deluge of digital content. And when you came to us, we would make money off you. But that was before your friends became your trusted sources. There are 600 million of you on Facebook and we know we need to be there too with our content. We haven’t even begun to fathom that monetisation challenge. So, we could up end an expensive drawbridge around Web sites that are already losing their value?

-- Scrolling on Web sites has always been a poor experience for consuming news. Now, just as new devices and digital experiences — none invented by major news brands — create richer engagement outside our sites, we are talking about charging readers for sub-optimal Web site consumption.

So where does that leave those of us grappling with the ‘whither the future of news business’ question?

I, for one, think that the golden age of targeted digital advertising is yet to come. Do we really want to trade that larger opportunity for the much smaller and unreliable pursuit of consumer dollars? I also wonder if we aren’t better off redeploying our newsroom resources to create new revenue streams and more engaging digital platforms than trying to make the traditional Web experience better and charge for it. And, I think we ought to create a drawbridge around our content — not necessarily for readers but for the aggregators. A business model that insists a Yahoo or a Huffington Post uses your content through some form of syndication, giving them trusted content and giving big media an opportunity to share the upside of their more engaging offerings.

Free is indeed very expensive. But, what the prolonged and knee-jerk debate about free vs. paid inside our news organisations shows is that we still have what led us here in the first place: An imagination deficit. Rather than apply an ‘all or nothing’ approach focussed, perhaps wrongly, on just our Web sites, we should be willing to make creative bets on our business model. We continue to make what is being consumed — in large quantities. It is time we figured out how to make it easier, more engaging and useful. Despite their soaring valuations, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter don’t create much, if anything at all, by way of original content. And, for that matter, neither do Google or YouTube. They simply make it easy, useful and engaging to their audiences. These are incredibly disruptive times and one thing is clear to me: There isn’t time or room for incrementalism at major news organisations.

Raju Narisetti is Managing Editor of The Washington Post and Founding Editor of Mint.

(This story appears in the 03 June, 2011 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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