Check in next year around this time as we look back at all the predictions for 2011 and how they turned out.
PREDICTION: At least technically, the recession is over, with GDP growth measured at 2.8 percent in Q3 of 2009 and widely forecast in Q4 to exceed that rate. But newspaper revenue has not followed suit, dropping 28 percent in Q3. McClatchy and the New York Times Company (which both came in at about that level in Q3) hinted last week that Q4 would be better, in the negative low-to-mid 20 percent range. This is not unexpected — in the last few recessions with actual GDP contraction (1990-91 and 2001), newspaper revenue remained in negative territory for at least two quarters after the GDP returned to growth. But the newspaper dip has been bigger each time, and the current slide started (without precedent) a year and a half before the recession did, with a cumulative revenue loss of nearly 50 percent. Newspaper revenue has never grown by much more than 10 percent (year over year) in any one quarter, so no real recovery is likely. This is a permanently downsized industry. My call for revenue by quarter (including online revenue) during 2010 is: -11%, -10%, -6%, -2%.
REALITY: CLOSE, ONE CIGAR. Actuals for Q1, 2, and 3: -9.70%, -5.55%, – 5.39%. And Q4, while not a winner, will probably be “better” than Q3 (that is, another quarter of “moderating declines” in news chain boardroom-speak). So, a win on the trendline, and pretty close on the numbers.
PREDICTION: Newspaper online revenue will be the only bright spot, breaking even in Q1 and ramping up to 15% growth by Q4.
REALITY: CLOSE, ONE CIGAR. Actuals for Q1, 2, and 3: +4.90%, +13.90%, and +10.7%. Since Q1 beat my prediction and was the first positive result in eight quarters, I’d say that’s a win, and pretty close on the ramp-up, so far. Q4 might hit that 15%.
PREDICTION: Newspaper circulation revenue will grow, because publishers are realizing that print is now a niche they can and should charge for, rather than trying to keep marginal subscribers with non-stop discounting. But this means circulation will continue to drop. In 2009, we saw a drop of 7.1% in the 6-month period ending March 31, and a drop of 10.6 percent for the period ending Sept. 30. In 2010, we’ll see a losses of at lest 7.5% in each period.
PREDICTION: I don’t think we’re out of the woods, or off the courthouse steps, although the newspaper bankruptcy flurry in 2009 was in the first half of the year. The trouble is the above-mentioned revenue decline. If it continues at double-digit rates, several companies will hit the wall, where they have no capital or credit resources left and where a “restructuring” is preferable and probably more strategic than continuing to slash expenses to match revenue losses. So I will predict at least one bankruptcy of a major newspaper company. In fact, let’s make that at least two.
REALITY: CORRECT — TWO CIGARS. Well, MediaNews Group filed its strategic bankruptcy in January, as did Morris Publishing. So this was a quick win. Canwest Ltd. Partnership, publisher of 12 Canadian papers, filed in January as well.
PREDICTION: Yup, there will be closings and frequency reductions. Those revenue and circulation declines will hit harder in some places than others, forcing more extinction than we saw in 2009.
REALITY: WRONG. Nope, everybody managed to hang on, nobody of any size closed.
PREDICTION: It’s interesting that we saw very little M&A activity in 2009 — none of the players saw much opportunity to gain by consolidation. They all just hunkered down waiting for the recession to end. It has ended, but if my prediction is right and revenue doesn’t turn up or at least flatten by Q2, the urge to merge or otherwise restructure will set in. Expect to see at least a few fairly big newspaper firms merge or be acquired by other media outfits. (But, as in 2009, don’t expect Google to buy the New York Times or any other print media.)
REALITY: WRONG. Google didn’t buy the Times or any other newspaper, but by the same token, there were no significant mergers or acquisitions all year. So much for Dean Singleton’s promise of “consolidation” in the industry after MediaNews emerged from its quick bankruptcy.
PREDICTION: Given the fact that newspaper stocks generally outperformed the market (see my previous post), it’s not surprising that there were few changes in the executive suites. But if the industry continues to contract, those stock prices will head back down. Don’t be surprised to see some boards turn to new talent. If they do, they’ll bring in specialists from outside the industry good at creative downsizing and reinvention of business models. Sooner would be better than later, in some cases.
REALITY: NOT FLAT WRONG, BUT NOT CLOSE. Perhaps the closest any company came to truly shaking things up was Journal Register Company, which in January appointed as its CEO John Paton, an executive with experience in Hispanic media. He’s not an outsider, but he’s preaching a very different gospel that includes a clear vision for a web-based future for news. Elsewhere, Tribune, still dealing with bankruptcy, tossed CEO Randy Michaels, not for strategic reasons but because accusations of sexism and other dumb behavior were “tarnishing” the company’s name.
PREDICTION: There will be more and more launches of online and online/print combos focused on covering towns, neighborhoods, cities and regions, with both for-profit and nonprofit bizmods. Startups and major media firms looking to enter this “space” with standardized and mechanized approaches won’t do nearly as well as one-off ventures where real people take a risk, start a site, cover their market like a blanket, create a brand and sell themselves to local advertisers.
REALITY: CORRECT. This is happening in spades. AOL’s Patch launched hundreds of sites. It may be a “standardized” approach, but it’s not “mechanized,” and hired more journalists than any company has in decades. At the same time, one-off ventures continue to sprout in towns and cities everywhere.
PREDICTION: At the end of 2008, this wasn’t yet much of a discussion topic. It became the obsession of 2009, but the year is ending with few actual moves toward full paywalls or more nuanced models. Steve Brill’s Journalism Online promises a beta rollout soon and claims a client list numbering well over 1000 publications. Those are not commitments to use JO’s system — rather, they’re signatories to a non-binding letter of intent that gives them access to some of the findings from JO’s beta test. Many publishers, including many who have signed that letter, remain firmly on the sidelines, realizing that they have little content that’s unique or valuable enough to readers to charge for. JO itself has not speculated what kind of content might garner reader revenue, although its founders have been clear that they’re not recommending across-the-board paywalls. So where are we heading in 2010? My predictions are that by the end of the year, most daily papers will still be publishing the vast majority of their content free on the Web; that most of those experimenting with pay systems will be disappointed; and that the few broad paywalls in place now at local and regional dailies will prove of no value in stemming print circulation declines.
REALITY: CORRECT. Most papers are still publishing the vast majority of their content free on the web. ALSO CORRECT: Broad paywalls have done little to stem the decline in print. JURY STILL OUT: But it’s too soon to tell whether those experimenting with paywalls are disappointed. All eyes are on the impending paywall start at the New York Times.
PREDICTION: The recently announced consortium led by Time Inc. to publish magazine and (eventually) newspaper content on tablets and other platforms will see the first fruits of its efforts late in the year as Apple and several others unveil tablet devices — essentially oversized iPhones that don’t make phone calls but have 10-inch screens and make great color readers. Expect pricing in the $500 ballpark plus a data plan, which could include a selection of magazine subscriptions (sort of like channels in cable packages, but with more a la carte choice). If newspapers are on the ball, they can join Time’s consortium and be part of the plan. Tablet sales will put a pretty good dent in Kindle sales. One wish/hope for the (as yet un-named) publisher consortium: atomize the content and let me pick individual articles — don’t force me to subscribe to a magazine or buy a whole copy. In other words, don’t attempt to replicate the print model on a tablet.
REALITY: CORRECT, MORE CIGARS. My iPad description and data plan price point were right on the mark. It’s hard to say for sure whether iPad sales have put much of a dent in Kindle sales, since Amazon doesn’t release numbers, but Kindle sales are way up after a price cut. The magazine consortium, now called Next Issue Media, still has no retail product, but it does look like it intends to “replicate the print model on a tablet” rather than recognizing atomization. Meanwhile, the Associated Press is recognizing atomization with its plan for a rights clearinghouse for news content.
PREDICTION: Twitter usage will continue to be flat (it has lost traffic slowly but steadily since summer). Facebook will continue to grow internationally but is probably close to maxing out in the U.S. With Facebook now cash-flow positive, and Twitter still essentially revenue-less, could Zuckerberg and Evan Williams be holding deal talks sometime during the year? It wouldn’t surprise me.
REALITY: WRONG, MOSTLY. Twitter is still fairly flat in web traffic, but it’s growing via mobile and Twitter clients, so its real traffic is hard to gauge. No talks between Twitter and Facebook, though.
PREDICTION: The Federal Trade Commission will recommend to Congress a new set of online privacy initiatives requiring clearer “opt-in” provisions governing how personal information of Web users may be used for things like targeting ads and content. Anticipating this, Facebook, Google and others will continue to maneuver to lock consumers into opt-in settings that allow broad use of personal data without having to ask consumers to reset their preferences in response to the legislation. In the end, Congress will dither but not pass a major overhaul of privacy regs.
REALITY: CORRECT. Indeed, we don’t have any major overhaul by Congress, but we’re actually seeing more responsible behavior from all of the big players with regard to privacy, including better user controls on privacy just announced by Microsoft.
PREDICTION (with thanks to Art Howe of Verve Wireless): By the end of 2010 a huge shift toward mobile consumption of news will be evident. In 2009, mobile news was just getting on the radar screen, but during the year several million people downloaded the AP’s mobile app to their iPhones, and several million more adopted apps from individual publishers. By the end of 2010, with many more smartphone users, news apps will find tens of millions of new users (Art might project 100 million), and that’s with tablets just appearing on the playing field. During 2009, Web readership of news (though not of newspaper content) overtook news in printed newspapers. Looking out to sometime in 2011 or 2012, more people will get their news from a mobile device than from a desktop or laptop, and news in print will be left completely in the dust.
REALITY: JURY STILL OUT, BUT LOOKING CORRECT. To my knowledge, nobody has a handle on how many news apps have been sold or downloaded, but certainly it’s in the tens of millions, counting both smartphone and tablet apps. One the other hand, a lot of people with apps on their phones don’t use them. As to where mobile ranks among news delivery media, the surveys haven’t picked up the trends yet, but wait till next year.
PREDICTION: I accurately predicted the Dow’s rise during 2009 and that newspaper stocks would beat the market (see previous post), but neglected to place a bet on the market for 2010, so here goes: The Dow will rise by 8% (from its Dec. 31 close), but newspaper stocks will sink as revenue fails to rebound quarter after quarter.
REALITY: ON THE MONEY. As of mid-afternoon December 15, the Dow is up 10.19% for the year, so I claim a win on that score. The S&P 500 is up 11.11%, and the NASDAQ is up 15.63%. Among newspaper groups, McClatchy (up 33%), Journal Communications (up 26%) and E.W. Scripps (up 44%) handily beat the market, but all the other players indeed sank or underperformed the market: New York Times Company is down 23%, News Corp. is up 5%, Lee Enterprises is down 30 percent, Media General is down 30% and Gannett is up 4%.