Op-Ed: Careful with That “Fail Faster” Mantra, Seattle Times Company
Much of the early hue and cry raised over the Seattle Times Company‘s (follow their tweet on Twitter) recent decision to provide donated political advertising to the McKenna gubernatorial and Approve R74 campaigns has been directed at the damage to the Seattle Times‘ credibility as a news source. Poynter holds the story by its fingertips as it shows it to you. Media Matters gets to talk about bias. Politico notes that corporate didn’t bother soliciting an okay from the news side.
That’s a concern shared by the Times‘s editors and reporters–according to executive editor and senior vice president David Boardman, “no one in the newsroom, including me, had any involvement in this project. I was given a heads-up after the plan was set, an opportunity to express concerns but not to change the course.”
But over time, people have started to wonder about the business case for the move, as well. The Stranger‘s Eli Sanders asks, “What Is The Seattle Times Company Really Measuring With Its Experiment in Bankrolling Political Ads?” Derek Thompson at The Atlantic says, “This Is the Strangest Newspaper-Business Story I Have Ever Read.” PubliCola’s sources point out that newspaper readers aren’t the ones who are undecided this late in an election-year.
Seattle Times Company management has a lengthy history of questionable business decisions–but this may be the one that brings a final vote of no-confidence from its audience. Tony Ridder, who knows from newspaper past-tenses, was quoted as saying in a 2009 Seattle Business Monthly feature, “Journalistically, The Seattle Times was a good newspaper. But Frank absolutely did not make good business decisions.” It sounds more and more like an epitaph.
The rationale, after all, doesn’t hold up to the most cursory of inspections. The Seattle Times Company claims they planned to introduce, with three weeks left until the election, an advertising campaign that will “show that in races where reaching voters in King and Snohomish counties is needed, advertising with The Seattle Times will be as effective on a per voter cost as other media that campaigns currently use.”
It would be difficult and expensive to tease out a single source of advertising’s effect at this point, and the Seattle Times Company has offered no evidence that it has the resources to do so. (The ads themselves make you grateful for professional ad campaigns.)
But even so, consider that then, armed with this hypothetical data, they will be able to do nothing until 2014′s lower-spending, non-Presidential year. (I would applaud the Machiavellian move of extorting a last-minute Times blitz from the Inslee campaign, except that Inslee’s strongest support is in the Times coverage area.) So the Times has put itself in the peculiar position of coming too late to get in on this cycle’s advertising, running a chancy experiment in public view (that “Inslee Wins!” headline would be embarrassing) and focusing all of it on the immortal cash-cow that is…2014′s full-page print ads?
At one heady point in the late 1990s, I placed a half-page Seattle Times ad for what I remember as around $28,000 (non-profit rate). The full-page ads for McKenna are being donated by the Seattle Times Company at a market value of $5,500.
We’re told this initiative is the brainchild of Alan Fisco, who was hired at the Times in 1992 as Single Copy Sales Manager and is now Executive Vice President, Revenue & New Products. But the tin-eared support for McKenna accords with the kinds of positions that publisher Frank Blethen likes to stake out: “McKenna said he also wants to look into whether the state’s estate tax, also known as the ‘death tax,’ costs more money than it brings in.”
Having worked briefly on the corporate side of a family-owned newspaper, I have flashbacks to the executive relations, toadying courtiers, and ink-blooded dinosaurs I met while there. This may color my view of the Seattle Times Company, as I struggle to explain to myself how this initiative could possibly have been okayed, why the obvious and strenuous objections of the newsroom were ignored in advance.
So where does this leave the Seattle Times? The news staff, even after substantial layoffs, continues to pull in Pulitzers. But the Seattle Times Company has not, you could argue, been pulling their weight.
In 2000, average weekday circulation of the Times was 225,687–this was before their competitor, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, exited the print market; combined circulation was then 400,000. In 2009, post-Post-Intelligencer, a Monday circulation “snapshot” had jumped to 289,000. As of March 2012, weekday circulation was back down to 236,929. Of the nation’s top 25 newspapers, it was a leader in circulation decline, at almost seven percent. (The Seattle Times Company circulation page doesn’t include actual circulation these days, but cumulative readership numbers.)
Two quick but illustrative examples of missed opportunities:
Visit the online classifieds. You’ll be one of the 200,000 unique visitors monthly who wander in. Wait, first click on that pop-up ad and close it. Are you on a mobile device? Oh, then you can’t. You’ll have to wait, maybe it will go away. That’s something people on mobile devices like to do, isn’t it, sit around and wait for their device to start working again? The page layouts (the classified sections are all “powered” by third-party firms) are a jumble, valuable content isn’t brought to the surface, and some three percent of the site’s 6.6 million monthly unique visitors ever bother to look to see what’s there.
I was heartened awhile ago to hear that a new iPad app was on the way. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a Print Replica of the actual newspaper, providing all the glamor of paging through a pdf. But it does allow the Seattle Times Company to include print ads exactly the way they look in the newspaper. They don’t link to anything of course, making them useless on a digital platform. But they do–and this is key–allow management executives still living in the cosy world of print to maintain the illusion that ads are ads. Print Replica has 31 ratings from users. There are no useful niche apps that slice up content the way readers might prefer.
What do you do with a new products division that’s trying to sell virtual single copies of newspapers? In that context, giving away full-page ads and driving away subscribers fits right in.