News editors see new tools but little cash on Web

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ASNEThe people in charge of putting out the news are thrilled that technology is giving them new tools for their craft. But they are still searching for ways to slow the erosion of revenue that threatens many media companies.

That was the message that came across at the American Society of News Editors annual conference on Wednesday.

To cap four days of sessions on everything from e-readers to nonprofit news groups, the organization had a panel of media executives who tried to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?” The group included executives from two of the largest news agencies, Reuters and The Associated Press, as well as the publisher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the head of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., a company with dozens of local newspapers.

“There has never been a better time to tell the story of the news,” Reuters Managing Director Christoph Pleitgen said.

Community Newspaper CEO Donna Barrett added: “From a content point of view we’re kids at Christmas.”
Even as the Web upends the business models newspapers used to rely on, it has opened up new possibilities.

The Internet lets newspapers get news to their readers all day instead of waiting for the next morning’s edition ? after television and radio reporters have already had their say.

It also offers new ways to tell stories, with video and graphics that readers can manipulate, for instance. A new pool of sources, expert and everyman, are available on Twitter and Facebook and in blogs.

But, said Barrett, “Revenue is a different story. It is extremely difficult and challenging because the economics of it are different than what we’re used to in print.”

Indeed, as the AP’s CEO, Tom Curley, pointed out, the newspaper business’ annual ad revenue is expected to be $30 billion lower in 2013 than it was in 2007. That means “Where we go from here?” is largely a question of trying to win at least some of the revenue back.

Newspapers have tried to make the transition to the Web largely by relying on advertising, which traditionally covered most of the costs of doing business in print. But advertisers have been willing to spend a small fraction of what they used to pay for print promotions on digital ads.

That daunting reality, plus the recession, has put a tremendous strain on most newspapers. America’s dailies have cut 13,500 newsroom jobs since 2007, according to ASNE figures. The group counts 41,500 full-time newsroom employees now.

Journal Sentinel Publisher Elizabeth Brenner said publishers can’t simply wait for the economy to cycle back to health.

“What’s really different about the last 12 to 15 months is we’re never going back,” she said. “We’ve had to reset.”

Opinions differ on how to reverse things. Executives at ASNE this week were split, for instance, over how much money news Web sites could bring in by putting up “pay walls” and charging readers for access. Some specialized newspapers, such as The Wall Street Journal, or locally focused publications such as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette have done well by restricting Web access to subscribers. But the move risks driving readers ? and then advertisers ? away, which is why The New York Times is moving carefully. It plans to begin a “metered” Web system, with nonsubscribers getting only so many articles for free, in early 2011.

Curley sounded upbeat on Apple Inc.’s new tablet computer, the iPad. He and other news executives believe consumers will be more willing to pay for newspaper or magazine editions that are tailored to the device or touch-screen tablets like it.

Curley made no specific predictions but suggested the iPad could be a revolution for the news business. He said the changes brought by the Internet have been only “gradual and really somewhat minor” from the point of view of readers. But the tablet could “usher in an almost idyllic moment for them,” he said.

Source: The Associated Press.