By most accounts, the Post leads the nation’s print papers in its use of the Web’s interactive potential with readers. To a far greater extent than the Times, it offers readers live, real-time talkbacks with reporters. “At first,” says Brady, “the reaction was, ‘I already get enough crap. Where am I going to find another hour to read all this stuff?’ ” But reporters soon found that readers who linked to talkback features had at least read the story, and the Web generally produced higher-quality feedback than reader mail.
For publishers and business strategists, the Web is about nothing less than financial survival. Donald Graham, the Post ’s CEO, was an early Web enthusiast, taking losses of more than $100 million a year in Web operations during the late 1990s in order to build up the Post ’s Internet capacity. “Anyone looking for quarterly returns should not invest in Washington Post stock,” Graham says. The paper’s much-admired Web journalism turns a healthy profit now. Online revenue at the Post was $72.7 million, in the first nine months of 2006, up 31 percent. The Post Company’s $1.1 billion Kaplan test-prep and tutoring company is increasingly an online product, too. Caroline Little, ceo of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, says online income has vast potential. “The ratio of the huge amount of time people spend using the net to the relatively low ad revenue realized from the net is way out of whack,” she explains. Internet ad income should grow rapidly at the expense of both print ads and TV ads. “The question,” Little adds, “is how can we contribute enough to the bottom line to keep the core journalism alive?”
The Internet now accounts for about 5 to 6 percent of newspaper advertising income. With Web income soaring and print revenue basically flat, analysts expect the lines to cross within fifteen years. By about 2020, if current trends persist, half of a newspaper’s income and most of its readership will be via the Internet.
Despite the seeming anachronism of paper in a digital age, however, the economics of the business require newspapers to persist as partly print media for at least another generation. Some Americans still want to pick up a daily paper rather than read content on a screen. And as a business proposition, the average monetary value of a visitor to a newspaper’s Web site is only 20 to 30 percent of a newspaper’s print reader; Web ads command lower rates because of the greater competition among Web sites. So even if a newspaper shut down its print operation, published only on the Internet, and somehow managed to keep its entire circulation, the revenue loss would exceed the cost savings.
A key to the transition to a hybrid world is investment. The New York Times is currently spending several million dollars a year on a new R&D unit, Web staff, and new products. Depending on how you count, the Times has over 100 people in the newsroom whose duties are more Web than print, including producers, software developers, and reporters and editors. (Full disclosure: For the past twenty-two years, The Boston Globe, now owned by the Times, has published my weekly op-ed column.) The Times is rolling out a nifty digital device called Times Reader, developed in partnership with Microsoft. (For the next few months you can try out the beta version yourself, free, at nytimes.com.)