Thursday, October 26, 2006

Merrill Analyst Fears Flat Future for Newspapers: Online Won't Pull More than Half the Freight

Editor & Publisher reports on Merrill Lynch publishing analyst Lauren Rich Fine's report on the future of newspaper publishing, which paints a somewhat gloomy future for newspapers over the next two decades. Fine sees online revenues not being able to contribute more than 50 percent of newspaper income from advertising in that period, based on an assumed double-digit growth for online revenues through 2012 and a 1.5 percent annual decline in newspaper ad revenues. As Fine puts it succinctly, "Put another way, moving from a near monopoly to a competitive model is having the impact of restraining blended ad rates and absolute dollar profits." Newspapers - and major media outlets in general - have enjoyed little competition in local markets for ad services and now face a myriad of new channels for advertising and marketing that will continue to place pressure on editorial operations for years to come.

But what Fine and other analysts seem to neglect is the diversification of news properties into diverse online destinations that provide traditional news as but one content product, even as non-traditional operations begin to incorporate news gathering into their own operations. Yahoo has taken on its own staffers for generating original news, even as paidContent.org notes Yahoo's shopping of classifieds content from their HotJobs portal to newspapers not affiliated with the CareerBuilder job posting network. And for The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal their forays into online properties About.com and MarketWatch have added diversity to their online holdings that can transcend the limitations of traditional news operations.

So while stock analysts may look at news operations and see a zero-growth game weighed down by declining print operations the increasing diversity of the news game is providing new avenues of growth that have little to do with the woes of traditional news monopolies. And this is before anyone has even touched replacing mass-produced print with mass-personalized print products that could boost print ad revenues significantly. Ms. Fine's report is based on common sense, but I think that it's not focused enough on more radical shifts in print advertising that are likely in the next five years and more pronounced diversification of traditional news organizations into a broader field of information and marketing specialists.

This all argues for more rapid shifts in revenue streams but also a potentially brighter future in the years for news as a revenue generator if those shifts can be undertaken sooner rather than later. Don't look at today's ticker symbols for the story of news revenues, look at the broader index of the content industry that is thriving on contextualizing news in a broad variety of venues.
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