As everyone knows, traditional newspapers generate their revenue largely from selling ads. Running an ad in the newspaper is pretty expensive, but running a banner ad on a Web site isn't. Let's face it, online publishers will never be able to charge anything approaching the rates traditional print publishers charge, and here's why.
Newspapers are able to charge such high rates for their ads was because they are doing something novel. Printing a newspaper every single day is a lot of work, and it requires a lot of skill, people, equipment and expertise. Running a Web site does not require a lot of skill, people, equipment or expertise. Just about anybody with a computer and an Internet connection can do it.
Now before the geeks out there start clambering about databases, server-side scripting, Web services, XHTML, XML, and all the nuts and bolts that are required to make a viable and profitable Web site possible - I am a geek. I've been building Web applications since 1997, I know that it's not effortless to build a worthwhile Web application, but I also know that building a Web site costs only a fraction of buying just the printing press, not to mention all the pre-press equipment, delivery trucks, etc.
Actually back in the 90s I was a journeyman offset press operator. I didn't run the big monster web presses that The Seattle Times owns, but even the 40-inch four-color sheet-fed Heidelbergs I worked on cost millions of dollars. Now factor in the cost of the press operator, an assistant, all the pre-press workers and the folks who wrap it up and deliver the finished product. Even with the automation that's taken place over the last 10 years, printing is still not effortless and certainly not cheap.
But online publishing is cheap. For me, I built the Courant myself and I estimate that what I made would have cost me between $20,000 and $30,000 to pay someone else to build. I chose to go with a custom content management system rather than a canned CMS such as Wordpress or Drupal because I wanted to have total control over the Web site, the database and the code. Leveraging an existing open source application like Wordpress could, in theory, cost less.
So by comparing the costs associated with setting up and maintaining a print shop versus a Web site, it's obvious that the Internet has stripped out virtually all of the publishing costs. Online publishing is not novel, thusly, online banner advertising is cheap and I wasn't going to be able pull in $500,000 a year to fund my newsroom by selling banner ads.
My plan for the Courant was to not just sell banner ads, but to offer a suit of powerful advertising and business tools and services. I envisioned levels of customers. Some businesses might just want a simple banner ad, but the more sophisticated customer could purchase custom landing pages for events, sales, etc. Or they could buy full-blown Web applications, databases and custom business applications. The Courant would essentially be a technology firm that focused on creative online publication, advertising and business services.
So why did the Courant belly-flop?
The Courant failed because I didn't have enough cash and I didn't find someone who could handle the business side, such as finding customers, technologists and managing projects. The trick I had to pull off was to be able to fund the Courant while I not only built a newsroom, but also a technology firm to support it. I couldn't do it all.
My advice to anyone who seeks to create something like The Seattle Courant is to make sure you have at least enough money to get you through the first year and someone who's as committed as you are to the business. To generate revenue, focus your efforts on providing technology solutions to your customers and not just selling banner ads. You have to be able to do something that other people can't, or don't want to do. Going to city council meetings and covering press conferences counts as something people don't want to do, but news doesn't make money it costs money. One way to think of it is that instead of a print shop that supports a newsroom, we need to build a technology firm that supports a newsroom. It's really not that different, it just requires a different skill set.
While I didn't succeed, I remain convinced that real journalism will survive the transition from analog to digital, it's just going to be scary for a bit.
I want to thank everyone who read the Courant and helped me along the way. It's been a fun ride.