As 2003 Nears, Where Is Online Newspaper Biz?

By: Wayne Robins

On the Line Column

It’s less than four months from 2003: Do you know where your online newspaper industry is?

I’ve been pondering this question ever since — well, since the day before yesterday, when I found the kids leaving for school and myself somehow remembering the directions back to the office. It’s been that kind of summer, when it’s been either too hot to swim or the beach has beached whales, or it rained so hard and long everywhere, except the watershed areas where it might have ended some drought.

In theory, this would be a good time to look ahead. Many in the online-newspaper business have spent the summer looking ahead — to Sept. 11. The interactive packages this week will be, or were (depending on when you’re reading this) ubiquitous, eye-catching, and reverent, I’m sure.

Let’s pretend it’s Sept. 12, or Oct. 12, or Nov. 12. And let’s assume, or at least hope, we have not been drafted to patrol the streets of Baghdad, capital of the 51st state, Exxon Mobil USA (once known as Iraq).

So it’s almost 2003. Weren’t our newspapers supposed to have cancelled all those newsprint orders by now? Wasn’t everybody supposed to be getting the only news they cared about — the ever-increasing value of their stock shares — on their cell phones? (Though they’re innocent until proven guilty, it’s entirely possible that, someday, a few former WorldCon executives may give new meaning to the term “cell phone.”)

I spoke with friends in the online-news business, both of them, who for their own reasons preferred unattributed comment. I asked if there was a malaise in the business. Or to put it less sourly (nobody likes a “malaise” mentioner — ask Jimmy Carter), whether we’ve hit the pause button.

“Most media have stopped talking big talk and launching big projects and are making do, for the most part, with just slapping their print content online,” said West Coast friend.

“Primary-election coverage and Sept. 11 are the main shovelware concerns,” said East Coast friend. “I suspect similar financial pressures have other news Web staffs demoralized and scrambling to keep up with copying the newspaper.”

Ouch! I wasn’t looking to find anybody that bummed out. Copying the newspaper is so 1997. One hopes that regressive virus doesn’t become widespread. I am sure that some companies — Morris Communications Corp., the McClatchy Co., the New York Times Co., and the Washington Post Co. — remain committed to both innovation on and profits from their sites. And companies large and small with concentrations of newspaper, TV, and online properties, such as the Tribune Co., Belo, and the owners of The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, still believe that convergence, a buzzword from the 2000-2001 season, is the future.

But that will be then. What’s now is no consensus on whether registration, free access, or paid subscription is the right business model. And with the economy in distress and war drums beating, one can understand the decision to turn off that Webcam on Main Street, which no one was watching anyway.

Now that we’ve reinvented the wheel and upgraded the chassis, it may be a good time to tune up the engines so our 21st-century news jalopies can run when we can once again afford the fuel.

On the Run…

Web Briefs

Longtime E&P Conferences maven Marsha Stoltman is handling marketing and consulting for the Media Center at the American Press Institute’s “Convergence: The Tour,” taking place Oct. 1-4 in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area. For registration info, go to … and have “mutually agreed” to end their affiliation, even though the New York Times Co. owns part of parent, Classified Ventures. … The Special Libraries Association has put together a Web site with a wide range of 9/11 resource links:

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