Paper-Thin Times for Print Journals

Announcements last week underscored the issues facing print media. The New York Times Co. unveiled plans to trim the web width of its flagship newspaper and close a printing plant. Dow Jones & Co. said it would accept ads on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. That paper’s U.S. edition, too, would soon get slimmer in line with its European version. What is happening?

Start with The New York Times. The paper is suffering from a weak New England economy. The consolidation of department store chains — a major source of local advertising — doesn’t help. The paper aims to save nearly $42 million in annual costs: $30 million from shutting one plant to consolidate regional printing at another and $12 million from taking six inches off its 54-inch broadsheet width. In its slimming moves, the Times follows Gannett’s USA Today, Tribune Co.’s Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.

For Dow Jones, a square-shaped “jewel box” ad at the bottom right of The Wall Street Journal’s front page could reap millions of dollars in ad revenue. That ad, in color, will run in the Journal’s Monday through Saturday editions. The Journal’s front page is the most valuable real estate in business print media. If clearly delineated as an ad, readers should have no issue differentiating paid content from editorial. USA Today already runs a strip ad on its front page, and other Gannett publications run front-page ads.

The Journal’s decision to trim hasn’t affected the quality of The Wall Street Journal Europe. If paper and printing costs can be saved while maintaining the same editorial standards, then a slimmer U.S. version should face little backlash from Journal readers – as long as they can continue to fold the paper the same way.

These decisions from the nation’s top two newspapers are a sacrilege to some, common sense to others and inevitable to those who made them. The announcements came the same week that Google said second-quarter earnings doubled year over year. The demand for buying keywords in Google’s AdWords and AdSense programs is seemingly insatiable. Google now accounts for almost one-fourth of all online income. Frightening. Only a silly move on its part – hubris or spreading itself too thin – can bring this company down.

Media consumption has changed, and advertising models are upended. Readers are not that loyal anymore, to brand or channel. The Internet often is the main source of news for consumers in most developed countries. And advertisers increasingly are following readers online. So in this environment, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. The New York Times Co. and Dow Jones have done the right thing. They are shoring up print operations while building out the online. But they must remember to cut costs, not corners.

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