Could Newspapers Go Web-Only?

My dad was for many years a highly-respected law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He also had a thriving side business as an arbitrator. At one point in his career, he took a leave of absence from the university to see if he could arbitrate full-time.

A year or so later, he went back to teaching. He later told me that arbitration jobs became much harder to get when he was no longer a university professor. Once he was back on campus, the demand for his arbitration services went right back up.

It turned out that in the arbitration community, “Professor Bernstein of Washington University” was a powerful brand. It gave him a significant competitive advantage in the marketplace.

I thought of that story today when I read Jeff Jarvis’ suggestion on Huffington Post that it may be time for the Los Angeles Times to turn off its printing presses and go online-only.

His reasoning is that the Times’ web revenue is apparently now greater than its newsroom payroll costs. Eliminate all the costs of printing and distributing a physical product, outsource the national and international reporting to the big national papers, (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, etc), focus all of your efforts and resources on local news, and you’ve got a profitable digital news operation.

As an advertising guy, I see some big questions:

1. How much of that online revenue will disappear when it’s not part of a print advertising package?

2. How important would the LA Times website be, as an advertising vehicle, if it’s not tied to LA Times, the paper? Will readers still go to that website if there’s no physical product to remind them? Will merchants still pay to advertise there if they’re not in the paper, too?

In my radio-and-online world, our websites are becoming increasingly important, to listeners and advertisers. But at least right now, it’s the “on-air” that drives traffic to our sites online. Much of the value advertisers see in being on is tied to the reputation and reach of KEX Radio, 1190 on the AM dial; and most of our online advertising is purchased in conjunction with an on-air radio campaign.

If you take away the physical paper, does “LA Times Dot Com” become a thriving online source of local news? Or is it just another web site?


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