The New York Times and others have showed how a metered paywall model can work, preserving digital ad dollars while adding a new stream of subscription revenue and at the same time discouraging print readers from dropping the paper. The Register has gone another way. Its managers say they’re charging for the content, not the medium, but it’s clear that this is a big bet on print. Yet the most conceivable future for newspapers, 10 or 20 years hence, is one in which they have converted print and hybrid subscribers to digital-only subscribers, shedding much of the cost of production and distribution. The Register will pick up few digital-only subscribers at $30 a month, particularly when its website and tablet apps are so weak. If the bet is truly on content and not the medium, digital will require serious investment, too.
Kushner is also banking on the idea that advertisers have been fleeing print in part because readers have been fleeing it. Win them back and advertisers—not all, but some—will return. But will they? There are many other factors. “I suspect that a lot of what’s happened in the last 20 years is that the journalism has suffered,” says John Morton, a veteran industry analyst. “But how much of the decline in newspaper circulation can be attributed to that, and how much can be attributed to the Internet—who knows?”
Still, much of Kushner’s model does make sense. American newspaper operations are still quite profitable, with operating margins that average between 8 percent and 10 percent, according to Morton. The rash of bankruptcies in the last three years was primarily due to debt loads tacked on by Wall Street mergers and acquisitions. Those bankrupt newspaper companies still posted significant operating profits, which exclude debt-service costs.
The profit margins are constantly pressured, though, by declining ad revenue. What’s changed in the last two years is that many papers are offsetting most or all of those ad declines with money from subscribers.
Freedom Communications President Eric Spitz told Mathew Ingram in April that the Register was making its aggressive print revenue targets for the first two months of the year. The paper’s next circulation report—due by the time you read this, at the end of April—will give an early indicator of the plan’s potential. A relatively flat report would be good news. A sharp decline would not.
Kushner has already rolled out creative new ways to add value for readers and advertisers. The Register gave each subscriber a $100 voucher to give ad space to their favorite charity, for example. The paper also signed a deal with the Los Angeles Angels to give subscribers unsold tickets to games, nudging the Register toward a membership model.
While it’s far too early to tell whether Kushner’s plan will work, it’s fair to say that the odds are against it. Print advertising is—barring a miracle—in an inexorable tailspin. Readers have more sources for news and entertainment than ever, and print-loving stalwarts are aging rapidly. Print isn’t picking up readers under 30, and it’s unclear how successful charging them full freight online will be.
But if Kushner fails, he will have gone down investing in journalism. And he says he’s in it for the long haul. “I don’t think that our model is for everybody,” Kushner says. “It takes a really long-term commitment. We have no institutional investors. We have no plans for an exit. We bought this basically to own it indefinitely.”