To be honest, I thought it was an April Fools joke.
On a day rife with bad spoof articles and terrible gags, I figured when blogger Ginny Skalski tweeted that Raleigh’s metro daily, The News & Observer, was going to begin distribution of an electronic edition, it was just another one of those things that would go away when the clock struck midnight and the pranksters hung it up for another year.
I was wrong. In an e-mail sent out Tuesday, The News & Observer was “proud” to hawk it’s newest product, the N&O e-edition.
Aside from the fact that the hip name already includes abbreviations, which is sure to draw the texting crowd (r u srs?), the paper’s marketing team also highlighted some of the other features of its “newest newspaper product.”
The e-edition is a digital replica of the print newspaper, available on your computer 7 days a week. It’s visually pleasing and reads like the real thing – perfect for the traveler, youngster or mover and shaker in your family.
I would love more than anything to join the managers at the N&O in a hearty laugh and a hard drink and congratulate them on a prank well pulled.
But they’re not smiling.
In an apparent effort to battle time, which according to N&O Publisher Orage Quarles III is the newspaper’s biggest competitor, the metro daily is pretending it can simply wind back the clock to 2001, when electronic editions were emerging technologies. That’s the year online media guru Steve Outing commented on Poynter, after seeing a demo of similar software with The New York Times, that he found it “interesting that the industry continues to try to force the print product onto a PC screen.”
In eight years, that attitude hasn’t changed at The News & Observer leadership — and things have now shifted from “interesting” to “sad and frustrating.”
That’s because the move to embrace the e-edition isn’t really meant to benefit readers — especially not “movers and shakers.” I’d call Triangle blogger and social media entrepreneur Jeff Cohen a mover and a shaker, but he gave the N&O e-edition a pretty dim review, especially in terms of simple usability.
Nor is the e-edition an attempt to reinvent the newspaper business model, something that requires innovation and forward-thinking. E-editions simply fit into the old model of print advertising, since they are tracked by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, a nonprofit that provides independent reports of newspaper circulation to advertisers.
The evidence also isn’t that great that e-editions even boost circulation enough to matter.
Take the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for example. In a six-month period ending on March 31, 2008, the paper saw exponential growth in its e-edition that grew its circulation. Sounds great — until you look at the numbers and see electronic subscriptions rose from only 101 to 1,912. That’s about 1.5 percent of the Seattle P-I‘s circulation.
I guess I should say former circulation, since the paper went online only about a year after those figures were released — 1893 percent growth in e-edition subscribers notwithstanding.
Even with the editions heralded as successes, there’s no real faith that the e-edition represents a viable business model. Slate media critic Jack Shafer praised the e-edition of Florida Today (in 2004, mind you). But in an e-mail conversation, Florida Today Page 1 copy editor Andrew Knapp admits the product is “no cash cow.”
In short, the electronic edition is not the future. It’s mixing mediums without much grace or profound value. I think people are going to prefer clicking on headlines over clicking on a newspaper page-looking image to read a story. Newspapers might make a little money on the venture, but it’s not going to make up for the print subscribers they have lost.
This isn’t the time for newspapers to take what they can get. This is the time for them to stop pushing “newspaper products” and get away from “replicas” of anything. It’s the time to innovate.
But that doesn’t mean they should be impulsive or irresponsible.
If you want to experiment with digital distribution, fine. Do it with technology that has the potential for growth — like the Kindle.
The Austin America-Statesman is a similar metro daily to the N&O. The paper’s 151,520 subscribers roughly compare to The News & Observer‘s 158,573. They’re both located in capital cities with tech-savvy audiences and nearby major universities. Yet the Statesman is No. 20 on Amazon’s list of bestselling newspapers on Kindle, while the N&O is nonexistent on the device.
Given the rate of technology adoption at the N&O, maybe we can expect our newspaper of record to innovate its way onto the Kindle and similar e-book readers around the year 2015. Although I fear decisions like this mean the paper won’t be around that long.
I guess this was an April Fools joke all along — just a really bad one.