“Go Digital or Go Home” is Not a Growth Strategy


UPDATE: I wrote this piece in 2012 at the height of the “digital first” movement.
On October 17, 2016, I felt completely vindicated and downright prescient when Politico ran an article by Jack Shafer titled “What if the Newspaper Industry made a Colossal Mistake?
It’s conclusion? That the tech-heavy Web strategy pursued by most papers has been a bust.

Why Newspapers Must Stop Force-Feeding Digital

Newspapers always seem to be on the wrong side of the digital transition. First, they were in complete denial and believed the advertising shift to the Internet was only temporary. Then, as their financial base started to crumble, they frantically looked for ways they could fit a few digital ideas into the old print model, which usually just resulted in an updated web site.  Now that they are on life support, some news gurus are trying to push the market ahead of itself. They want to end print now, because they can’t stabilize legacy costs, and they’re trying to force digital down the throats of a large customer demographic that isn’t ready to go there…yet.

There can be no doubt that the future of news is “digital first.” The question is whether it’s going to be “digital only.” My answer is a qualified “Yes,” eventually. But ‘eventually’ is probably decades away. Here’s why.

The “digital only” news market is very small

A weak minority of readers is “digital only.” As WAN-IFRA’s 2012 Press Trends report confirmed, print and print/digital combinations still comprise the lion’s share of the world’s news market:

  • More than 2.5 billion people read newspapers in print at least once a week and [only] 600 million read newspapers online. Of those online readers, 500 million read both print and online, and 100 million access newspapers in their digital version only.
  • More than 40 per cent of the world’s digital audience read a newspaper online, up from 34 per cent a year ago. But while newspaper websites attract massive numbers of people…, a major challenge remains frequency and intensity of the visits. While nearly 7 in 10 internet users in the United States visit newspaper websites, only 17 per cent visit daily.

The “digital only” revenue stream is even smaller

WAN-IFRA also reveals that print and print/digital subscriptions and advertising comprise almost all of newspaper revenue production. Digital alone would barely cover the utilities.

  • Print continues to provide the vast majority of newspaper company revenues, with circulation alone accounting for nearly half of all revenues.
  • While the overall digital advertising market rose from US $42 billion to US $76 billion from 2007 to 2011, only 2.2 per cent of total newspaper advertising revenues in 2011 came from digital platforms.

The “digital only” advertising model is too volatile

If you believe some self-appointed news gurus, the future isn’t just “digital only,” it’s “mobile only.” So they are now encouraging the industry to focus its advertising strategy on the mobile market — primarily tablets, since consumers are largely rejecting smartphone advertising.

The good news here is that WAN-IFRA’s research indicates tablets and e-readers have convincingly increased news readership:

  • More than half of tablet owners say they consume news on their tablet daily, and 30 per cent say they spend more time with news than they did before purchasing the tablet. A majority say they prefer the tablets over traditional computers, print publications or television.

The bad news is that there is a strong and growing backlash against online and especially mobile advertising (see this Adobe study). And unlike print, the online news market is particularly vulnerable to this backlash. Online advertising is valuable and effective only if companies can “track and optimize” user activity and preferences. That’s why Microsoft’s “Do Not Track” feature that allows users to opt-out of such ad tracking has evoked fear and vehement criticism from advertisers.

But “Do Not Track” is only the beginning. AdTrap portends the future. AdTrap is developing a box that will sit between your cable modem and wireless router and block every kind of ad that can be delivered over the Internet. It has a working prototype and has already reached 2/3 of its funding goal on Kickstarter, where you can pre-order the device with a contribution.

Consumer advocacy in this area has been intensifying the last few years. People are sick of being bombarded with advertising everywhere they turn and the market is heeding their cries with this kind of product and app development.  Eventually, advertisers and consumers will find a happy medium, because customers do want to stay informed about new products and services, and particularly money-saving deals. The point is that online advertising models and their resultant revenue are going to be in flux for some time to come, and newspapers cannot afford to bet their future on them.

If online ad blocking efforts are successful, will advertisers return to print? The print ad boom days are gone forever, but advertisers could begin to hedge their bets by balancing more between print and online promotion — especially if print and print/digital news subscribers continue to far outnumber digital only. And therein lies the rub. If this occurs, companies will be looking for quality print products to advertise in, which the news industry is currently in the process of strangling to death.

By downgrading news staffs and decimating its print products, the news industry is not only alienating its most valuable (and most loyal) customers, but likely limiting future advertising opportunities. It’s more than dangerous to assume that by strangling the print market, print customers will turn exclusively or even primarily to digital news. It’s just as likely that a large part of that market will turn to television.

Fortunately, newspapers like the Orange County Register and Minneapolis Star Tribune have started to realize that they need a more balanced approach for a successful digital transition. These newspaper owners and executives are actually investing in print by beefing up news staffs and improving the quality, community service and circulation of their print products — while simultaneously finding ways to incentivize their print audience to move toward digital. They are experimenting with metered paywalls and subscription models to get out from under the advertising headlock, believing that only a quality product will bring them long-term stability.

On the horizon as well is the growing popularity of free newspapers and nonprofits that are particularly popular with young readers and “generate equivalent reader per copy levels as paid-for newspapers and have similar advertising yields,” per WAN-IFRA.

It may serve the short-term interests of certain cannibalistic investment fund managers to sell off everything related to print, but it will doom the business long-term. While the news industry clearly ignored the financial realities of its business side to its peril, it has now swung in the other direction of being in the hands of people who are simply interested in maximizing financial return — to the long-term detriment of the newspapers they own and the communities those newspapers serve. 

In the end, it all comes down to sales. And any successful salesperson will tell you that closing a sale is all about being a good listener.  Listen to your customers and give them what they want, so you’ll then have the opportunity to sell them more of what you have. You might then be able to convince them to buy something they didn’t know they needed. What a novel idea.

Jassa Skott  ~  11/11/12

Yes, your vote counts.


I voted today. I leisurely completed my ballot at home while researching nagging questions online about referendum items and checking out judicial performance ratings at coloradojudicialperformance.gov. Then I drove to the Denver Police Station on South University, deposited my envelope in the drive-up ballot box and rewarded myself with brunch at The Universal.

I like voting this way. It’s easy, convenient and stress-free. But I still vote in person every four years in presidential elections. I do it because I enjoy watching everyone who’s standing in line with me. It’s usually a diverse group — young and old, racially mixed, students and professionals, privileged and poor. We rarely speak to each other and aren’t likely to hang out together anytime soon. But what we all have in common is the willingness to stand and wait anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours to exercise our right to vote. I’m always impressed by that.

It may surprise you, then, that my most memorable voting experience didn’t take place on Election Day. It happened at a Democratic state convention on May 21, 1988. We were there to choose between Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson to be the party’s presidential nominee. Dukakis had long been considered a shoe-in for the nomination. In Colorado, he had received key endorsements from Gov. Roy Romer and Democratic Party Chairman Buie Seawell. But in the final months leading up to state primaries and caucuses, Jesse Jackson’s campaign had gained considerable momentum. For the first time in American history, an African American male had a fighting chance to be the nominee of a major political party for President of the United States. 

Colorado voters were not yet on the national radar, so it was indicative of how close the race had become that both Dukakis and Jackson rigorously campaigned in the state in the days leading up to the April 4 Democratic caucuses. Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times reported that while there had been no official polling of caucus voters, “internal campaign telephoning suggests the race between Dukakis and Jackson remains close, with a large number of undecided voters” (Colorado Important Democratic Battleground,, April 4, 1988).

I attended the 1988 Democratic state convention as a Jackson delegate. It was a typical convention filled with lots of political speeches and no doubt some behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing by Jackson supporters who still held out hope they could change the final result by convincing some Dukakis delegates to defect. (They weren’t successful.)

When the voting finally began, I started walking down the hallway to be one of the first to cast my vote for Jesse Jackson. I was thinking mostly of myself, feeling proud to be a white southern liberal voting for an African American to be the Democratic nominee. I was pretty oblivious to my surroundings until there was a quick and noticeable change in the air. It was the kind of feeling you get when someone important walks into a room and everyone gets nervous and excited, but you can’t yet see who it is. I looked up and saw that I was surrounded by a group of African American men and women ranging in age from about 60 to 90 years old. The looks on their faces caused me to slow down and move over to the side to let them pass. Then I sat on a nearby window sill and watched as they walked to the voting tables.

That was when I realized our state convention vote wasn’t just a formality. I was watching a group of people who likely believed they would never live long enough to see one of their own be a viable candidate for the presidency, and with good reason. Although African American men were granted the right to vote in 1869 and women got the vote in 1920, by 1940, only 3% of African Americans in the South were registered to vote. The Voting Rights Act banning racial voting barriers wasn’t passed until 1965, only 23 years prior.

This group’s grandparents may have been slaves. They had lived with their parents through quasi-slavery, mass lynchings, poll taxes and Jim Crow anti-voting violence. They had probably marched against racial discrimination and police violence, and were no doubt proud of the political progress that had been made. But the presidency? Hardly anyone believed at the time that it was within their grasp.

I could see the pride and determination on their faces as they waited in line to vote. They knew Jesse Jackson wasn’t going to be the next president. He wasn’t even going to be the Democratic nominee. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that after all they and their parents and grandparents had been through, they had won a major victory. Their votes for Jesse Jackson were solemn affirmations of something they no longer just hoped but knew was going to happen. And 20 years later, it did.

I waited until almost everyone had cast their votes before I walked up and added mine. I have a fairly healthy ego and humility isn’t my strong suit, but this was one of the proudest and most humbling experiences of my life. It was also a major turning point in American political history, and I am honored and grateful to have been there to witness part of it.

There have certainly been times when I’ve thought it was futile to vote. I didn’t like the choices or I felt like there was really no choice at all, especially when it came to candidates for national office who so often seemed to end up as cogs in a political machine that serves only the wealthy.

Maybe being a southerner has something to do with how much I value voting. I’m more aware than most of the extreme tactics some groups have used to keep people away from the polls. First it was violence, literacy tests and poll taxes; now it’s confusing voter ID laws, last-minute polling site changes and limited voting hours. But above all else, the most successful tactic has been to convince people that their vote doesn’t count, that it won’t make a difference. So there’s really no reason to vote at all. Why bother?

I never fell for that crap. I figured out pretty quickly that if my vote meant nothing, Republicans wouldn’t be spending thousands of hours and millions of dollars making it harder for me to cast it. There could be only one reason. They are afraid of what I might do with it. And well they should be.

Jassa Skott  ~  10/26/15