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In Shifting Media Landscape, Print Publications Transition to Web

October 29, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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As print publications lose subscribers to the Web, some are making major staff cuts and one -- the Christian Science Monitor -- is axing its paper edition in favor of online-only content. Analysts weigh in on the changes and what they mean for the media world and readers.
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JEFFREY BROWN: A landmark legal settlement yesterday allows the Internet search giant Google to continue its years-long project to scan books and make them available on the Internet.

Google will pay $125 million to settle two copyright suits brought by book publishers and authors. The deal will make it easier for all parties to profit from the digital versions of printed books.

Google has already scanned 7 million texts, nearly 5 million of which were out of print, everything from classics to esoteric science texts and how-to books on ancient trades.

Until this settlement, users could only see parts of these scanned works unless the copyright holder let the entire work be viewed. That will now change for books that are out of print.

But even as the deal points to a continued revamping of the world of books, including one where they’re read on new devices like the Kindle, yesterday also brought still more tumult to another sector of the print world.

Newspapers and magazines, suffering from a decade-long drop in readership and advertising revenues, are taking a new hit as the economy slows. Circulation at most major U.S. newspapers dropped nearly 5 percent from March to September, forcing more cuts.

Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper company, announced yesterday it will lay off 10 percent of its workforce, some 3,000 employees.

Time, Inc., will give out 600 pink slips across its wide spectrum of magazines.

The Star Ledger of Newark, N.J., will avoid ceasing operation all together only by cutting its already-thin editorial staff by 40 percent.

And the Los Angeles Times yesterday announced yet another round of newsroom layoffs, as its parent company, Tribune, seeks to cut costs further. The paper now has about half the newsroom staff it had in 2001.

In perhaps the most dramatic move to date, the century-old Christian Science Monitor announced yesterday it would cease daily publication and migrate most of its publishing to the Web, the first national newspaper to do so. It will still put out a weekly roundup.

Google changing the book world

JEFFREY BROWN: And we discuss the gains and losses of the changing media landscape now with Mark Glaser, editor of the MediaShift blog on PBS.org, where he writes on the intersection of media and technology; and Steven Levy, who does the same as a senior writer at Wired magazine; and John Yemma, editor of the Christian Science Monitor.

Well, Steven Levy, for those who haven't followed this fight between Google and the publishers, explain the importance of the settlement.

STEVEN LEVY, Wired Magazine: Well, Google had a really ambitious plan to digitize as many as possible of all the world's books; all the books ever written, essentially, is what they wanted to do.

And the publishers and the authors objected to this, because they felt that Google was illegally making copies of the books and not paying them. They wanted, essentially, a cut of the action. That's what this two-year negotiation was about.

And the settlement actually turned out to something bigger. It does a few things. It enables Google to, as your reporter said, legally continue this activity. They've got 7 million books now. I think they want to go up to 20 million in the foreseeable future.

And, also, Google is now going to be a distributor of books for sale. They're going to set up a system by which authors and publishers can get paid when people want to view the books online there.

So it really puts Google far, far ahead of its competitors in delivering probably is, what, the most significant corpus of information in the world, as in human history, all the printed books.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mark Glaser, I mean, we talk so much about the changing economic model when we're talking about new media. How does this play into that, if you're an author, if you're a publisher? How does it change the economics?

MARK GLASER, PBS.org: Well, I think it significantly changes the economics, because now, if you're an author and you have out-of-print books, you might not have figured out a way to make money.

And now, through Google, someone could be searching for something that happens to be inside your books. And it basically pulls up a -- pulls up that copy. People can preview the book. And then they'll be able to buy it.

So it's really giving authors of out-of-print books and even authors of books that are in print another revenue stream, another way to make money. And it goes along with this kind of print on demand that we're start to go see, services like Amazon's BookSurge, where an author can basically publish their books themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Isn't there a downside potentially, though, for an author that you put your work online, and then you don't get the same amount of royalties that you might have gotten with a real book?

MARK GLASER: Well, actually, what's interesting is that you do get better royalties when you publish and you self-publish online. And in this case, with Google, I believe, it's a 60 percent-plus royalty for the author, for the publisher.

So I think online you're actually being able to cut out some of the middlemen and go directly from the reader to the author without having to go through the layers of administration.

Cost effectiveness of online news?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we'll come back to some of the economics, but I want to bring John Yemma in, because you're -- you're dealing with another part of this digital change. First, why is it impossible for the Monitor to continue as a newspaper of the kind that we can hold in our hand?

JOHN YEMMA, Christian Science Monitor: Well, the monitor has a very large -- a national circulation that's actually very small, I should say, 50,000, 52,000 readers scattered across the country. And the economics of delivery, of printing and delivery to them is very -- it's very difficult for us and has been for decades, really.

So the advent of the Internet, where we've seen more people migrating to the Web to get their news, just seemed to me, seemed to us to be an opportunity to reach people where they are.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, it allows you to reach more people where they are, but does it allow you to get more money from those people, to pay for the reporting and all the operations of a newspaper?

JOHN YEMMA: Well, I mean, our plan is to move towards sustainability. And the way that we think we can do that is by having a mix of publications.

We have a weekly print publication that will debut in the spring. We have more energy that we'll have on our Web site now, because we'll be able to devote our reporting and editing resources directly to the Web site.

That, in turn, should make our Web site, csmonitor.com, a destination. And it should increase traffic; that should increase revenue.

I know it's a tough economic environment. We also have an e-mail news summary that we'll be putting out every day that will be a subscription product. So within these three editions of the Monitor, we think that mix will bring in enough revenue and cut enough costs that we'll reach sustainability in three to five years.

Content the same, ads more targeted

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Steven Levy, let me bring you back on. How do you think about the pluses and minuses of the economics here, whether it's books or newspapers?

STEVEN LEVY: Well, they have different models. Books, as we know and enjoy, don't have ads stuck in the middle there. That's not the business plan for books. So it's pretty nice to be able to shift that over to the Web and see money for it.

And Google actually is going to get some advertising money, because, in the pages you use to preview to see what's in the book, Google is going to be able to run ads in that.

For something like a newspaper or a magazine, things are much tougher, because the business model depends on a certain kind of advertising that works well in print but has not worked well on the Web.

So when you -- if a place is considering advertising on the Web, they're more likely to use the kind of ads that Google sells, which is ads that are tied to search. And they target them to key words in search, as opposed to putting ads on a page alongside an article there.

So I think it's tough sledding for newspapers and magazines in general. Before I was at Wired, I worked for a weekly magazine for 12 years. And let me tell you: Weekly magazines are no picnic, either.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark Glaser, same question. How do you see the pluses and minuses -- stay on the journalism side here -- of newspapers and magazines?

MARK GLASER: Yes, I mean, I think that a lot of people talk about this gloom and doom among journalism and how we're going to really lose serious journalism. And I don't think we're going to lose serious journalism; I think what we're seeing is a change in business models.

And I think what the Christian Science Monitor is admitting is that going online is really the way to start thinking about new ways of making money, whether that's online advertising -- like Steven said, Google controls a lot of that -- or whether it's subscriptions, like the Wall Street Journal is doing online, or even nonprofits, like ProPublica or NPR or even PBS right here.

These are all different models that people are trying for. Plus, there are experimental ways that journalists are trying to make money, going directly to the public for funding, what they're calling "crowd funding," a site called Spot.us which allows people in a community to actually fund the journalist directly without the overhead of a news organization.

Adjusting to a new reading approach

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, John Yemma, I know you've worked at -- you worked at the Boston Globe and you certainly know the industry well. What about the quality question? I mean, even if you can put out more information to many more people from different sources, what about maintaining the kind of standards of quality?

JOHN YEMMA: Well, you know, your standards start with your standards. And at the Christian Science Monitor, for 100 years, has had a certain set of standards that's trying to reach people who want to understand the world, not unlike PBS viewers, people who -- in our foreign bureaus, our national bureaus, we all have this drive to understand the world and to convey that in a non-sensationalistic way.

So 100 years of that is the development of some pretty strong standards. We think we can take those onto the Web. And, indeed, for the past 10 years, like every newspaper, we've been on the Web.

But now we can unshackle ourselves from the constraints of print and devote our time and attention directly to the Web, which, frankly, will help us develop, you know, the right kind of journalism for the Web, we think and, you know, fly our flag there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Steven Levy, everyone is wondering where this is all going. How much do we already know about changing reading habits already? How many people -- is it generational, the way we often hear about who's reading the newspaper online? The introduction of the Kindle, I mentioned, as a new way of reading books. How much do we know about how many changes have occurred already?

STEVEN LEVY: Well, we do know that, as you mentioned, there is a big generational difference between younger and older people and reading habits. People complain that young people don't read, but they do read quite a lot. They read a lot on the Web.

And they don't support the same kind of publications that their parents read, because, by getting on the Web and by grazing, read an article here or read an article there, they have a different kind of experience there.

And, to be honest, it is somewhat worrisome for the kind of really serious, in-depth journalism that some of the great institutions, you know, that we know of have been, you know, going on for, you know, and delivering us for years.

When you surf on the Web, you get distracted very easily. You look at the top most-read articles on a lot of the Web sites, and it's not the ones that are the in-depth investigations, but it's an article about Britney Spears or something like that, or cheerleaders, which -- or, you know, a dog that got lost, which tops the story about the investigation in your local community or, you know, like a national story.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, to be continued on the business, on the standards, and all those questions. Steven Levy, Mark Glaser, and John Yemma, thank you all very much.