July marked a rash of self-assessment by the newspaper industry, including by the local newspaper division of Times-Picayune owner Advance Publications.
Randy Siegel, president of Advance Local, twice annually pens an assessment of the company’s progress toward becoming a “digital first” company. His update is ostensibly for employees, but is publicly available on the Advance Local website, and often scrutinized by analysts. His July 16 report is unsurprisingly upbeat, but Poynter Institute’s Rick Edmonds deciphered Siegel’s report and finds that despite Advance’s head start in the digital-first foray, the company is “in the same boat as its peers — needing to serve two different audiences with very different platform preferences for some years to come while inventing a future of their organizations.”
As Edmonds notes, Siegel acknowledges that Advance Local has fallen short of its goals:
“We still have a long way to go … Our business-to-business sales initiatives, while growing well in terms of year-over-year percentage growth, are a fraction of what they should be. While our mobile and video ad revenue gains have also been stellar in terms of year-over-year percentage growth, they should be increasing at a much faster rate given our level of investment.”
Edmonds also notes that “Siegel backed off his claim of six months ago that digital ad gains this year will surpass print losses,” conceding that newspaper declines have been “steeper than we budgeted for.”
Edmonds highlighted some areas where The Times-Picayune and other Advance newspapers are likely saving money when compared to other newspapers, and others where they are losing out on revenue opportunities. Of note:
- Advance is likely saving money on production and delivery expenses because most Advance newspapers (including the Picayune) are producing and distributing fewer newspapers (three a week during non-football season in New Orleans).
- Payroll expenses are also likely lower after wholesale reductions in most Advance newsrooms, including the Picayune‘s. The company counters that it subsequently hired a lot of digital-savvy staff, but those employees are, by-and-large, younger and likely less-expensive than the veterans who were terminated during the 2012 mass reductions, and are receiving more-modest fringe benefits. Rumors abound that more staff cuts will come in New Orleans later this year or in early 2016.
- While three-quarters of newspapers now charge non-subscribers for digital access, Advance has stuck with an advertising-supported, free-access website model. That means Advance isn’t reaping online subscription revenue, or additional revenue from higher print subscription and single-copy prices that most newspapers have been able to charge.
- On the flip side, Advance is likely avoiding the worst of industry-wide print advertising losses because most ad schedules and nearly all of the more lucrative pre-print insert advertising are still appearing on the days its newspapers publish print editions.
Siegel told Edmonds that Advance’s digital audience continues to grow — a 34% year-to-year increase in unique visitors for the first half of 2015. Quantcast currently ranks all 12 Advance sites combined as the 68th most-trafficked “network” on the web. NOLA.com is 449th, and sixth among Advance’s newspaper sites.
Edmonds adds that declining digital ad rates and continued domination by Google and Facebook probably mean digital ad revenues aren’t what Advance hoped for. “If Advance miscalculated, I’m guessing it was in the hope that loyal seven-day print readers could be brought along to the website as a substitute on non-print days,” he concludes, before citing what he calls “surprising research” by the Newspaper Association of America last year that a majority of print subscribers never access their newspaper’s digital sites.