Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Print and be damned?

As more blogs become successful businesses in their own right, paper-based titles should take heed.

It has been a long time since the decline in printed news made the front pages in the US. The Seattle PI, Rocky Mountain News and The Christian Science Monitor have joined dozens of others either seeking protection from their creditors via bankruptcy, or shutting the printed version to concentrate on the web.

The news last year that BusinessWeek had been sold to Bloomberg for what is understood to be just $5m (it was valued by analysts a few years ago at more than $1bn) sent shockwaves through the industry. BusinessWeek is expected to have revenues of $130m this year, a figure only slightly higher than its profits were at its peak, in 2000.

A few years ago, bloggers were dismissed as bedroom commentators - unprofessional, unpopular and unprofitable. However, several have now morphed into substantial publishing businesses, competing head to head with the big beasts of the old world.

The Huffington Post, started by Arianna Huffington, journalist, socialite and erstwhile candidate for the California governorship, is one of the best-known. It covers business, politics and lifestyle issues, and is a powerful voice in the US media; last year it overtook in monthly users.

Business Insider is a group of websites including Clusterstock (Wall Street), Silicon Alley Insider (digital) and The Wire (media). With more than 4m unique monthly visitors, it offers serious content; its advertisers include HP, Lexus and Harvard Business School.

Drudge Report, Znet and Daily Kos are also all well-known titles, getting their share of breaking stories, and debunking the myth that quality journalism exists only on paper.

These online publications share an organisational configuration built for the new world. At Business Insider's New York offices, for example, staff use about a quarter of the space per head of BusinessWeek, and its rent is a fraction of the prime-location rates paid by the print title.

They also share an openness to contributions from the public, which often benefits them when it comes to landing scoops, but also dispenses with the need to maintain costly global networks of stringers and bureaux. Neither do they have to maintain vast factories, where the product is printed, and complex, expensive distribution networks to put the paper into people's hands before it becomes outdated. Last, they don't have to share the cover price with a high-street shop. Indeed, if anyone came up with a business model like that today, they'd be laughed out of town.

NBC Universal's chief executive, Jeff Zucker, was credited with saying that the problem with the transition of his business to digital was that he was 'exchanging analogue dollars for digital pennies'. Advertising yields were so much lower in digital, that the model simply didn't stack up. He has recently updated the quote to 'dimes' rather than 'pennies' - a 10-fold rise in yield, but still a big loss from analogue days.

In one sense, traditional media have been trying to turn back the clock- putting up paywalls and preventing search engines from indexing them.

Yet with the new generation of media moguls committed to free content online, the competitive environment doesn't favour this.

Instead, they have to look at their costs; within their businesses and through the value chain, such as the absurd level of transaction costs for dealing with advertisers, which continues to strangle agency business in the regional press.

It's time to stop trying to re-engineer the world to fit their business model, and start re-engineering their business to fit the world.

What started with the Seattle PI will soon be front-page news here, assuming there still is a front page.

- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level.

30 SECONDS ON ... The Huffington Post

- The Huffington Post, a news website and blog aggregator, was launched on 9 May 2005.

- It was founded by Arianna Huffington, Kenneth Lere and Jonah Peretti.

- In 2009, Huffington, who is editor-in-chief, was named as the 12th-most influential woman in media by Forbes.

- The site, which is also often referred to as HuffPo or HuffPost, features more than 3000 bloggers, ranging from celebrities to academics.

- Contributors have included Barack Obama, Norman Mailer and Madonna.

- According to an article that appeared on website TechCrunch last month, Yahoo! is in discussions with The Huffington Post over a content partnership deal.

- The site features more than 20 news categories. Sections include College, Impact, Tech, Living and Green.

- It is also the world's biggest blog. This April it attracted 26m unique visitors globally, according to comScore.

- In November 2008, The Huffington Post completed a $15m round of fundraising from investors.


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