Walter Hussman, Publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and scourge of free content, appeared at a luncheon on Thursday at Columbia Journalism School to push his argument that newspapers should not be in the business of giving away free content. Hussman contended that the decline in newspaper circulation has in large part been due to the media strategy of newspapers giving away their content for free. Consumers, being rational, got their news without needing to spend additional money.
Buttressing his argument with statistics from his experience of charging for content with the Democrat-Gazette, Hussman compares the success of newspapers who charge for content versus those who do not. The numbers are compelling. Expounding on his earlier column in The Wall Street Journal, Hussman made a strong case that newspapers would fail to offset revenue lost in declining print circulation with revenue generated from online visitors. Citing the Inland Cost and Revenue Study, Hussman claimed that newspapers generate between $500 and $900 in revenue per subscriber per year, versus $5 to $10 per unique visitor per year.
These numbers tell only part of the story. Hussman then compared circulation figures for the Democrat-Gazette with the Columbus Dispatch. The Columbus Dispatch and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette are the sole mainstream dailies in their respective markets, both of which are similarly-sized state capitals. The difference between the two newspapers? The Dispatch switched to a free content model on Jan. 1, 2006. In its first six months of offering free content, the Columbus Dispatch’s daily circulation declined 5.8%, compared with a loss of 0.4% daily for the Democrat-Gazette. This comparison reflects national trends for newspapers that have decided to offer their content for free. Under Hussman’s analysis, it is difficult to see why any newspaper would offer its content for free.
However, there are real world problems with Hussman’s analysis. Most notably, Hussman’s strategy seems to require either establishing a dominant market position on local news gathering (i.e., the Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock), or serving a compelling product to a niche with disposable income (i.e., The Wall Street Journal to financiers). No less a robust content provider than The New York Times felt compelled to abandon its subscription model, hemmed in by the reality that it is neither a commanding local voice nor a provider of exquisite niche content. The evidence cited by Hussman suggests two possible strategies for newspapers going forward: first, to leverage local market power on news by charging for local content, which is difficult for larger publications with a national focus to replicate successfully. Under this model, national news offered on web sites would be posted for free, as such news is easily found elsewhere. Second, if local market power is not lucrative or too difficult to attain (such as in New York City), then obtaining a special niche or specialty would be the preferred strategy, perhaps with a component of local news. If local news is niche content that people will pay for, then large city dailies without dominant market positions might consider purchasing the smaller neighborhood newspapers, establishing neighborhood dominance to leverage for paid readership. Without establishing some kind of dominant market power, a newspaper in a multi-daily metropolis would find itself compelled to offer free online content, as any price charged would be immediately undercut by its competition. And web content does earn some money for the newspaper. Just not nearly enough.
Hussman’s arguments harken back to the early days of the dotcom boom, when the conventional wisdom was to spend money to obtain dominant online market positions. Once obtained and with hard-earned goodwill, the dotcom would finally be able to earn a return on all of the capital initially invested. The logic worked out well for some (ebay and Amazon), but failed more often than not. With control of the local Little Rock market and comparatively strong circulation, Hussman has found that it is good to be the last man standing.