Making newspapers pay

John Lanchester, London Review of Books

Between 2004 and 2009, the US newspaper industry lost 34 per cent of its readers; the UK industry lost 22 per cent. Since then, the speed of the downturn has increased. In the last 12 months alone, seven broadsheet titles in the UK have seen their sales decline by more than 10 per cent. In the US, in the first six months of this year, the Chicago Tribune lost 9.8 per cent of its remaining readers, and the Los Angeles Times 14.7 per cent.

The trends in newspaper advertising have, if anything, been even worse. When circulation goes down, ad revenue goes down too, because the ads are reaching fewer readers and are therefore worth less. Compound this effect with a general advertising recession and the numbers are horrible.

And with the arrival of the Internet, in the form of both specialist job-search sites and free advertising outlets such as Craigslist, the fountain of gold that was classified ad revenue simply stopped. It is this more than anything which underlies not just the desperate financial condition of the US industry, but also one of the most obvious symbols and symptoms of the decline, the sudden physical shrinking of American newspapers. The Washington Post was once a behemoth, so big it could be physically hard to get to grips with. Now it feels like a freesheet. The Sunday edition of the New York Times was famous for being so heavy that paperboys would lob it onto the porch and accidentally kill the family dog. Now, a stiff breeze would carry the entire thing away before you’re halfway through your vanilla latte.

There have been some unexpected successes. The Evening Standard was bought by the former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev, and turned into a freesheet. This at the time seemed to me the craziest idea anyone in the business has ever had, turning a paying product into something that you just give away, and hoping that the increased (though free) circulation causes a sufficiently lucrative spike in advertising. It’s like jumping out of an airplane in the hope that you will land in a big enough pile of hay. But guess what? It worked.

Another ‘success’ lies in the area of financial journalism, in which both the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal have been able to make money by putting a paywall around their content. The FT has a staggered system in which the first casual visits are completely free; then you have to register, but the articles are free to read; then when you’ve read more than a certain amount of content, you have to pay. When you ask insiders why this works, they always say the same thing: ‘Because people have a reason to read the FT.’ This immediately raises an obvious question: why don’t they have a reason to read the other papers?

Read the full article at the London Review of Books …