The struggle at this moment

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By Suzana Singer
Folha

In the difficult transition to a business model which does not depend only on the printed version, newspapers need to invest in quality to make Internet readers faithful

The “New York Times” announced last Thursday, for the first time in its history, that revenues for circulation surpassed those obtained from advertising. The ombudsman there applauded: “A note to Times readers: You matter. And you matter now more than ever before.”

This deals with an important change. In recent years, the “Times,” like most newspapers in the United States and Europe, has seen a slow, but continuous, decrease in sales of printed copies at the same time advertising has plunged vertiginously.

The solution was to try to convince Internet readers to pay for information. That worked for the “Times,” which in nearly two years has sold 640,000 digital subscriptions.

The problem is that the revenues obtained from virtual circulation do not cover the hole caused by the loss of advertising in print. Advertising on journalistic sites is still timid because most of the money goes to specialized sites and to Google, leading to the conflict in many countries, including Brazil, between news organizations and the Internet giant to force it to pay for indexed content.

The negative result of this story involves “cost cutting,” which has materialized in successive dismissals in newsrooms, already overburdened with on-line production.

This painful transition of the business model based exclusively on the printed version to a mixture of print with the Internet also happens here, although in a less frenetic rhythm.

Folha was the first to import the “porous paywall,” in which Internet readers can read a certain number of stories for free, but beyond that must register, and in the end, pay. Charging started last June, and the newspaper today has 45,000 digital subscribers, which corresponds to about 15% of total circulation. It’s a good number, considering the huge amount of free news on the Web and the fact that On-Line Universe subscribers have free access to Folha’s contents.

At the same time, it’s a low number compared to the 20.5 million unique visitors to the site in January. Most of the Internet readers probably don’t consume a sufficient amount of news that puts them up to the allowable limit of free content.

At Folha, you are allowed to read up to 40 stories per month for free – two per business day, which seems little. The most clicked stories are generally those which tell about celebrities or those that involve sex.

The truth is that, despite celebrating the important numbers of the on-line audience, newspapers still have not discovered the real size of their audience on the Internet, those who, interested in information, would believe it is fair to pay for it.

While the Web is not proving to be a profitable environment, traditional news organizations don’t invest heavily to improve their sites.

All you need to do is navigate the main home pages of Brazilian news sites to understand that the stories seem to be last-minute dispatches. There are few “scoops” (exclusive information), they lack big stories and visual elements, such as videos and graphics, and were not done with the Internet in mind. We find only opinion in abundance, thanks to the presence of dozens of columnists and bloggers, who make noise and cost little to companies.

If the road to be followed is that of the “New York Times,” increasingly determined to capture on-line readers, it’s necessary to bet on what its publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., says: “Quality journalism attracts a quality audience, which we sell to quality advertisers.” Let’s just hope that’s true.

Translated by John Wright

This column was originally published in Folha on Feb. 10 2013.