Karen Peterson: We can see our way forward, and future looks bright

EXECUTIVE EDITORMarch 2, 2014 

The clouds are beginning to part for the newspaper business as we find our way through what has been a stormy few years of recession coupled with advancing technology that allows readers to consume their news in new ways.

We just returned from a meeting of our company’s editors, publishers and ad directors representing all 30 daily newspapers in the McClatchy chain. Together, we learned about readership and revenue trends that begin to paint a clearer path to the future for our industry.

Our paper, like most, is still seeing slight declines in the number of people buying the printed paper. Just as important as the number of copies sold, however, was another metric we discussed: how much time readers spend with each of our products.

The printed paper still rules at about 22 minutes a day, longer than our readers spend on average on our website or on our phone and tablet sites. That tells us the good, old-fashioned printed paper still garners deep readership, making it a valuable place for businesses to advertise. For those reasons, the paper will continue to be around for a long time.

But emerging trends begin to show us where our readers are headed.

The fastest-growing segment of readership is mobile — people reading our news on their tablets and smartphones — which grew an astonishing 70 percent last year. Mobile now makes up more than 40 percent of our digital readership and soon will overtake the number of people reading us on a computer.

As you might expect, readers catching a headline or two on their smartphones don’t spend a lot of time reading the news deeply. But readers using our tablet apps and our electronic replica editions of the printed paper are spending almost as much time with our news as the print readers. Those are platforms that play to our strengths — deeper stories about local news that readers can’t find anywhere else — and their popularity is growing.

Alongside readership trends, revenue trends (based on publicly available earnings reports from the McClatchy Co.) are showing promise as well.

In 2008, circulation revenue — the money we get from subscribers and newstand sales — made up about 20 percent of McClatchy’s income. In 2013, it was about one-third, and the revenue is growing.

Much of the growth comes from a decision more than a year ago — along with most newspaper companies — to begin charging people who read us online. About 85 percent of McClatchy’s print subscribers now pay us for online news as well. And nationwide more than 30,000 people signed up for digital-only subscriptions.

Digital readership numbers dipped for a few months after we began charging, but they’ve bounced back and are higher than ever. The combination of a growing number of readers and an audience willing to pay for news online bodes well for our future.

As readers move online, so do advertisers. Digital advertising now makes up about 40 percent of McClatchy’s total. Digital advertising revenue that was not part of a print-advertising buy grew last year by more than 10 percent.

At The News Tribune, we’re making plans to improve our technology and our news products this year. We’ll install new computers this summer that allow us for the first time to create stories for the newspaper and our digital products all from the same system. We’re making changes that allow us to post breaking news more quickly.

And we’ll pay special attention to the tablet apps that are becoming so popular. For now, those apps are made up of automatic feeds from our website. But soon we’ll be able to build local news pages for tablets much the same way we build them for the newspaper.

Business models, readership trends and new technology all play in the background as we perform our daily duties of delivering the news and keeping a watchful eye on our community. But they’re important to understand so we can keep up with our readers’ changing habits and so we can remain a viable business.

We have reason to feel hopeful about both.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434
karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com

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