Writer. Warning: opinions. My lawyer advised a disclaimer, but didn't include any jokes to go with. Damned if I can think of any either.

How To Make a Profitable Newspaper

Photo: Matt Callow
I’ve been thinking lately about what it would take to make the idea of a newspaper profitable. Admittedly, there are a lot of people much smarter than I am wrestling with the same issue, but I suffer from high self esteem, and watching existing papers cling to life is, honestly, kind of pathetic. Why not give it a go?

Probably my least favorite tactic that my local paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is employing would be the preroll video advertisement. It works like this: they show you a photo and a description of a video, you click on it to see the video, and then you get hit with a 15 second advertisement for cars or foot cream or whatever before they finally let you see the actual content. Maybe it’s just me, but I always feel tricked by that little move, and it’s taught me never, ever to watch video on ajc.com.

I called them out about it on Twitter, saying that I despise the pre-roll ads with the venom of a thousand adders, and they responded:

It’s a fair point. After all, the folks at AJC are hard-working people and they need to feed themselves and their families.

Sounds a bit like Stockholm Syndrome to me. I’ve begun a study on the matter, though. Every time someone asks me a question or refers to me in any way in a social situation, I begin my turn to talk with a short speech on how nice it would be if someone would buy me lunch, or a drink. Hopefully people will come to accept it as part of hanging out with me, but my study is on hold at present because I’m without any weekend plans. Strange.

Oh well, I can certainly make use of that time by thinking about how I would design a profitable newspaper.

Get Rid of Ads
The first thing I would do is get rid of advertisements of any kind, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there’s a conflict of interest issue. If all your revenue comes from business interests, then you are incentivized to serve those interests, not necessarily the interests of your consumers. Secondly, I think that humans are very good at ignoring ads, and there is a little science to back me up on that. Myself, I have a plugin for my web browser that removes all ads, and I love it.

Banner Ads: Panhandling Homeless of the Internet
You may with to use my favorite term for these unfortunate souls, Home-Challenged Urban Gentlemen (HCUG), but whatever you call them, like banner ads, HCUGs are ignored nearly at all costs. If you should happen to look directly at them, they’re unsightly and they want your money. On top of that, there’s the vague perception that they probably want the money for some sort of shady purpose.

Make it hyper-local
Secondly, I’d make my paper hyper local. I would start by collecting news just on my neighborhood. I would go to any local civic meetings I could find, and attend every open house I could find. Then I’d twitter my face off about local events and happenings. I would become the go-to source for neighborhood information, and if there were already a go-to source, I would either copy whatever they’re doing or get them involved.

Charge for readership
Third, I would charge a small amount of money for a subscription, and I would do digital delivery only. I’m aware that some people still like to read a printed newspaper, but the overhead costs on a print edition would be tough for me to get over, at least at first. I’m thinking in terms of $1 per week to be a reader. I would make the home page of my paper show teasers on the featured articles, but to read the whole article would require subscription.

As I say, I am no economist, or even a journalism expert. These are just my ideas, and while I’m spouting them I’ll just go ahead and say that as far as saving existing papers, I think their best bet is going to be something along the lines of hiring a wizard. Whatever the case, I’m convinced that increasing the advertisement to content ratio is not the answer.