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Moroney Tells Morning News Staff That Paper Cannot Survive on Clicks Alone

The newspaper business used to be simpler, meaning it was easier to make money at it.
The newspaper business used to be simpler, meaning it was easier to make money at it.
Lewis Wickes Hine
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This may be something you don’t even want to know about, but it’s about you, so I thought I should mention it to you. James M. Moroney III, publisher and CEO of A.H. Belo Corp., the company that publishes The Dallas Morning News, has been talking about you.

In an 800-word memo to the entire Morning News staff earlier this month, Moroney said the city’s only daily newspaper needs to quit going for the most possible clicks and concentrate instead on publishing stories and pictures so good that you will actually pay to look at them.

You know what clicks are, right? You are a click. Now don’t get all puffy about it. I only mean that you are a consumer, and every time you click your mouse to look at something the News publishes, they count up that click. And they sell it. Or try to. We do the same thing here.

How does one sell a click? You might be asking the wrong person. I just work here. But I know in my own very long career in newspapering, we’ve always had these wonderful people somewhere else in the building who are called “ad staff.” Ad staff are usually very good-looking. That’s how we can be told apart on the elevator.

They go out and … I don’t really know how … they sell. They get money somehow. They bring the money back into the paper, and they give some of it to us. We love them. Without them, we wouldn’t know how to feed ourselves.

Ad staff used to sell what was called “circulation.” Circulation was all of the people who subscribed to the newspaper or bought it on the street, or, in our case, picked it up for free on the street. So the ad staff were selling you.

They sold you to advertisers who wanted to sell their goods to you. The ad staff told the advertisers that you could be expected to show up looking at the newspaper at a certain time every day. The advertiser could get a message to you — “Buy my stuff” — by putting an ad in the paper where you would see it, for which the advertiser had to pay the ad staff.

Now newspapers publish the lion’s share of stories online, but you wouldn’t think that would really change the basic mechanism of advertising. At least I wouldn’t. The ad staff should still be able to get money when an advertiser buys an ad on our web page. He should be able to get his money when you see his ad online, go to his store and buy his stuff. We should all be happy.

But we are not happy. In fact, that was what Moroney was telling the Morning News staff in his memo. We are not happy at all, because there is an enormous glut of places to advertise online. The competition between the available ad sites is so intense, in fact, that it drives down the price that any one of them can charge for ads.

In the past a newspaper was always able to charge more for its advertising the bigger the audience it could cobble together. But that doesn’t work anymore, Moroney said, because the price that papers can charge per click keeps spiraling downward faster than the audience numbers can move upward. Increasing the size of the audience — chasing the clicks, as we call it — doesn’t work any longer.

“We can’t grow audiences large enough and fast enough for the low (prices) we can charge to ever pay for our journalism,” Moroney told the staff. “This is just a fact: Digital display advertising has never paid the bills the way print display advertising once did. This isn’t going to change in the future.”

And what does he mean, “pay for our journalism?” What’s so expensive about journalism, anyway? Isn’t it just yelling at rich people when they get out of their cars? How much can that cost?

Look, I spend a lot of time here ragging on the Morning News about specific content, but, strictly from a professional newspapering point of view, I am always in awe of the quality of work they’re capable of turning out, not to mention the significant investment I know it must represent every time they do it.

I look at a superb package like the one that ran last November on West Dallas under the bylines of Diane Solís, writer, and Andy Jacobsohn, photographer, and I can visualize all of the personnel hidden behind that page — assigning editors, copy editors, page designers, web editors, not to mention the ad staff and the promotions staff and the administrative staff. I know that when you add up all of those people, their pay, benefits and time, you’re throwing at least 20 grand at that one piece, probably more, and that’s if you can crank it out pretty fast.

The Morning News continues to produce work on that level of quality on a regular basis. Only two of many possible examples are the George Getschow package on Lewisville dam in December 2015, and the incredible all-staff scramble on the downtown police shootings last July. I counted 10 photographer bylines in the main package, anchored by the paper’s ace breaking news shooter, the incomparable Smiley Pool. The other work in the package is searing, haunting, shocking, elegant, riveting — photographs that call out for their own museum show some day.

What if you pulled out each story and put it up for auction on eBay? What would they draw?
What if you pulled out each story and put it up for auction on eBay? What would they draw?
David R. Blume, Wikipedia

Even if you forget the sheer original genius of the work itself, the production quality and finish alone in those packages are at the level of high-concept Hollywood movies, and that level of work cannot be done on the cheap by anybody. Ever. Only very talented and experienced people working together as a well-oiled team can pull that off.

So in his memo to the Morning News staff, Moroney was telling them that the newspaper has got to find a new way to pay for that journalism. His hope is that he can get more of you — that’s right, I am talking to you — to pay a price for looking at the paper online instead of seeing it for free.

The New York Times, coincidentally, released a report on its own business this week that reached a similar conclusion: "We are not trying to maximize clicks and sell low-margin advertising against them. We are not trying to win a pageviews arms race. We believe that the more sound business strategy for The Times is to provide journalism so strong that several million people around the world are willing to pay for it."

Since last May the Morning News has been charging for access to its online content. I take Moroney’s memo to mean that he wants more people to sign up and pay more than what they do now. “It’s time for us to prioritize direct-from-consumer revenue (think subscriptions, day passes, pay by the article, etc.) over monetizing our audiences through digital display advertising,” he said in the memo.

Delving a little deeper into digi-speak, he said, “Instead of celebrating growth in page-views or growth in unique visitors, we are going [to] celebrate improvement in how often readers come to our sites, how long they stay and how deeply they dive into our work.”

About the best translation I can offer is this: He wants more consumers to actually read the stories and ponder the pictures instead of flying by at warp speed on the way from an item about a wolf singing “White Christmas” to an item about men with multiple penises.

He wants you. The reader. And he wants you to pay. Are you still here, by the way? I can’t believe it. You must be awaiting a tooth extraction or something.

We’ve all been trying to figure you out for a long time. In the course of my extra-long newspaper career, I have seen the equivalent of three serious deep-dive readership studies — studies of you — each about a decade apart. They all came to the same conclusion.

In your decision to read us or to read the guys across the street, to start your subscription or to stop it, to read us or take a nap, the single most important criterion in all three studies was credibility. You don’t expect us to provide you with the God’s truth, because we’re just newspaper people, not God, but you do want to know that we are doing the very best we can. That we’re working it. We don’t have our fingers on the scale. We’re not total morons. Even if what we give you isn’t perfect, it’s got to be better than what you can get from the other guys.

And we need to put on a good show. When you sit down with a newspaper or you open a site or a page on the internet, you are hoping for a satisfying experience. In order to tell you the truth and do it in a way you will find satisfying, we need to be good at what we do.

But how much will you pay for that? I think that’s what Moroney was really asking his own staff in the memo. He talked around it a little, but I thought I heard him telling his people that they need to produce their very best work, and then he intends to find out what people will really pay for it. And then we will know.

It could be zip. Maybe you won’t pay anything for it. Maybe it’s not worth it to you. You’d rather spend the money on fly-fishing.

Does that mean truth will die? Somehow I don’t think so. I don’t think we own the truth. We just sell it. The existence of truth and the human appetite for it are not dependent on the newspaper business. But if you won’t pay for it, you will have to find somebody else to go gather it up for you. I’m not doing it for free — I’d rather go fly-fishing myself, as a matter of fact — and I don’t think Moroney’s going to do it for free, either.

I see why he would want to find out exactly what the content will bring in terms of price, but there’s something a little scary about the idea. What if they auctioned us all off one at a time? What if nobody bid for me? I might have to add some appendages.

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