Philly.com: Why Jump on a Failing Model?

Posted: May 19, 2014 in Contemporary Commentary

Ignored by me in my scorched earth critique of Philadelphia news media coverage of news media, was a fine piece in the City Paper last month by Daniel Denvir entitled What does the fight over Philly.com mean for the future of Philly journalism?  He does a nice job giving an overview and managed to extract a now famous quote from the head of philly.com web, Bob Cauthorn.

Cauthorn, who also serves as chief operating officer at Greenspun Media Group, owner of the Las Vegas Sun, faults a newsroom attitude that would ‘rather win a Pulitzer than win 20,000 new readers. And that’s a disease.'”

He also noted that viewership was up at Philly.com — the sort of buzz-feed bottom feeder version of the Inquirer and Daily News websites — and that Philly.com subsidized money-losing parts of the newspaper.

Interesting for many reasons.  First of all is the notion that Pulitzers and new readers are not compatible — and in fact a Pulitzer may have an exchange rate of sort in thousands of readers.

The second is that Cauthorn’s steady job in Las Vegas — obviously considered a success by him and by his bosses there and here — may be a harbinger of how life may play out for The Inquirer.

So how is life at The Las Vegas Sun? Which incidentally promotes itself as a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper.

We tickled the electronic Rolodex and found a few journalists who worked with Cauthorn out there.

“Well, you sure aren’t going to see any Pulitzers anymore at The Las Vegas Sun,” one former reporter said.  “It’s all pretty much a feature section now.  There is some sign they may be building up a political team after the other reporters all left, but it’s a wait and see operation.  It kind of falls back on lots of photos and features on the Strip.”

But it is a healthy and robust metro newspaper no doubt, run relevantly by Cauthorn, not hellbent on Pulitzers for sure, but healthy.  And relevant.

Right?

Not exactly.  It is not a free-standing paper.  It is a few pages each week within the other metro paper — a ghost of what is called a Joint Operating Agreement.  What exists mostly is Cauthorn’s web op.  The Las Vegas Review Journal is the dominant newspaper.

But the Las Vegas Sun dominates on the web, right?  That is Cauthorn’s gift?  He has set the world on its head through his web strategy and outguns the Review Journal on the web?

Well, no.  They were close back in December, with the Sun at around the 13,000th most trafficked website and the Review Journal at around 11,000th.

And then, through today’s date, the Sun went into a steep slide into 14,000th place and the Review Journal struck north to around 8,500.  No doubt there are other measurements that would better evaluate the two sites, but there is no denying that this one says there is a broad rise and fall in the fate of Las Vegas web sites.

In that light, how is Philly.com doing?  Cauthorn says that unique page views were up 50% from February 2013 through the end of the year.  There is no reason to doubt that figure, but it would be interesting to see an update because the broad scheme of Alexa seems to show Philly.com as flat or falling.

The more important question is this:  Do advertisers even care?  Sites such as Philly.com are creatures that thrive only when ad rates are good and today’s group of ad buyers has driven down rates relentlessly through the use of online instant bidding where alogrithms drive the last wasted fraction of a penny from the offer.   All sites such as Philly.com are losing money year to year in a gusher — some public companies reporting revenues down by one third.  The situation is bad and was a year ago when Advertising Age noted some paid sites were ratcheting back on advertising. “Why jump on a failing model?” one new web developer asked.

Why indeed?  No publication with any success is following the Philly.com model where there is no paywall and no quality branding.  I don’t know Cauthorn but his words strike me to be those of one of the original unreconstructed webbies who grew from the 1995 uprising of free sites.  Of course, he’s right when he points out there are unreconstructed newspaper ink stained wretches out there who aren’t doing themselves any good by resisting the trends of the web.

I’m just not certain Cauthorn understands that he himself may be outdated as well, undone by a concept that came and went when he was sidetracked by the dangers of Pulitzer disease and flipped a coin that came up “free” when he should have chosen “fee.”

 

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