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Newspapers open up about digital challenges

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Newspapers open up about digital challenges

Opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of SNL Kagan.

U.S. newspapers' online advertising is not even coming close to replacing the higher-margin legacy ad revenue lost to the increasingly fragmented and lower margin digital ad economy.

The U.S. newspaper industry lost $32.2 billion in ad revenue between 2006 and 2016 and is projected by SNL Kagan to lose another $2.1 billion in ad dollars over the next 10 years. SNL Kagan projects that circulation revenue is also likely to shrink as traditional single-copy sales and print subscriptions decline.

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While the average annual rate of decline for total revenue will likely be much lower during the next 10 years than it was in the first 10 years in our snapshot (negative 1.3% versus negative 7.2%, respectively, in compounded annual growth), the newspaper industry faces an ongoing challenge to dramatically change the way it operates, relates to its readers, and serves its advertisers.

That is the stark admission of a newly released internal study by The New York Times known as the "2020 report" among the news staff of the 165-year-old publisher. The report, which took a year to complete by a team of seven Times journalists with the support of the publisher's top executives, lays out a strategic blueprint in broad strokes.

The report does not reveal anything startling that was not already recognized among beleaguered newspaper operators and their narrowed base of investors. Its significance is that it openly shares a plethora of challenges that the Times has failed to adequately conquer after a decade of trying, and it lays out a series of goals that it must meet relatively quickly in order to survive the digital age.

The newspaper's lead Business Day article on Jan. 17 linked to the 2020 report (officially titled "Journalism That Stands Apart") and noted many rapid changes that have to be embraced by the Times newsroom.

The report underscores that the challenge is industry-wide and notes that venerable news organizations like Gannett Co Inc. and The Wall Street Journal (owned by News Corp.) are also struggling to cut costs and find new revenue sources. The Wall Street Journal is working on its own newsroom review called "WSJ2020."

Among the recommendations in the Times' 2020 report are:

* Streamline the editing process by reducing duplicative layers. The report and senior executives strongly hinted that editors were likely targets for future layoffs.

* Increase visual journalism via graphics and video to meaningfully enhance stories.

* Focus on building a subscription revenue model rather than just page views, visitors and clicks.

* Improve and expand staff training and accelerate hiring that aligns with the goal of enhanced digital offerings rather than just print products.

* Continue an ongoing effort to double digital revenue from $400 million in 2014 to $800 million by 2020 by increasing online subscriptions. The Times noted in October 2015 that only one million digital subscribers, or 12% of its readership, delivered 90% of its digital revenue. The 2020 report said digital revenue approached nearly $500 million in 2016.

A parallel commentary about some of the 2020 report's findings was published by Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof on New Year's Eve titled, "Lessons From the Media's Failures in Its Year With Trump," in which he admonished journalists to "try harder to be watchdogs, not lap dogs" and quoted veteran press critic Tom Rosenstiel about the need to "cover what is important" rather than "bark at every car."

Kristof called for "[figuring] out new ways of doing things while focusing on journalism and not stenography," in what sounds like a reference to the way the news media covered the campaign speeches of all the presidential candidates. He also noted that a recent analysis found that Donald Trump received $1.9 billion in free media coverage, or "190 times as much as he paid for."

Kristof also criticized the news establishment for its lack of diversity among national journalists with "working-class or evangelical roots" that resulted in "shallow or condescending" coverage that "largely missed the fury and despair that Trump rode to victory."