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Dec. 20, 2011, 9 a.m.

Martin Langeveld: A look back at my 2011 predictions, along with a fresh batch for 2012

Keeping Martin Honest: the 2012 edition.
Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is Martin Langeveld, who spent 30 years in the daily newspaper business, 13 of them as a publisher, and who contributes regularly to the Lab.

Here we go again — time to have look back at my December 2010 predictions for 2011, and to go out on another limb with prognostications for 2012.

Below, I’ve listed each of my 2011 predictions (somewhat abbreviated in some cases — just click back to the original post for the full verbiage). Following each 2011 prediction, read my report on  how things actually turned out, plus a fresh prediction for 2012.

2011 Prediction: Digital convergence: News, mobile, tablets, social couponing, location-based services, RFID tags, gaming . . . All these things will not stay in separate silos. . . . imagine for a moment: personalized news delivered to me on my tablet or smartphone, tailored to my demographics, preferences, and location; coupon offers and input from my social network, delivered on the same basis; the ability to interact with RFID tags on merchandise (and on just about anything else); more and more ability not only to view ads but to do transactions on tablets and phones — all of these delivered in a entertaining interfaces with gaming features (if I like games) or not (if I don’t). In other words: news delivered to me as part of a total environment aware of my location, my friends, my interests and preferences, essentially in a completely new online medium — not a web composed of sites I can browse at my leisure, but a medium delivered via a device or devices that understand me and understand what I want to know, including the news, information and commercial offers that are right for me. All of this is way too much to expect in 2011, but as a prediction, I think we’ll start to see some of the elements begin to come together, especially on the iPad.

How I did: Some hits, some misses in a complex prediction there. Real personalized news still remains an unrealized holy grail of a goal. But we’re certainly moving rapidly in the direction of more and more transactional functionality on tablets and phones — as I described here in an early preview of the Amazon Kindle Fire, which is a big step in the direction of “a device . . . that understand[s] me and understand[s] what I want to know, including the news, information and commercial offers that are right for me.” And clearly Google wants to go there, as described in Ken Doctor’s recent post on “Google’s retail push.” (By the way, some very interesting data just came out about how tablet owners are using their gadgets for shopping in the current holiday season: 87 percent of them are using them to shop; on average they plan to spend $325; most are doing their shopping from the couch or in bed; and about half plan to continue doing more shopping on their tablet. Clearly, my early view that tablets will fuel a new e-commerce explosion is being borne out.)

Prediction for 2012: I’m rolling this prediction into 2012, lock, stock and barrel. And I’ll add that tablet-based shopping in 2012 will surpass all expectations.

2011 Prediction: The Associated Press clearinghouse for news. Lots of questions here: Will be it nonprofit or for-profit? Who will put up the money? Who will be in charge of it? What will it actually do? It will probably take all year to get the operation organized and launched, but I’m going to stick with the listing of opportunities I outlined when news of the clearinghouse broke. I continue to believe that the clearinghouse concept has the potential to transform the way that news content is generated, distributed and consumed.

How I did: The “clearinghouse” is now independently incorporated as News Licensing Group, but it has been virtually mum about its plans. We do have answers to the questions I listed: NLG is for-profit; it has considerable funding from various newspaper companies; its CEO is David Westin and its COO is Srinandan Kasi, former general counsel at AP. Todd Martin is CTO, and the outfit is hiring for key staff positions. So far, NLG doesn’t even have a website yet; the most detailed description of what it is doing and what its plans are can be found on its recent submission for an award at the Cloud Computing Conference. Aside from the content-tracking News Registry system NLG inherited from AP, this document points to a next phase in which NLG plans to create “new and innovative ways for news providers to license, market and distribute their content to digital platforms in a manner that respects intellectual property rights and generates new revenue for publishers.”

Prediction for 2012: Let’s roll the News Licensing Group prediction over into 2012, as well. Expect NLG to (a) come up with a better name for itself, (b) launch a website, (c) be more public about what it’s doing, and (d) demonstrate ways in which news and information content can, in effect, be released onto the web, be used by various published subject to usage and payment restrictions embedded in tags, and send revenue back to the content owners or creators.

2011 Prediction: Embracing real digital strategies. Among newspaper companies, Journal Register will continue to point the way: CEO John Paton ardently evangelizes for digital-first thinking . . . .  So for a prediction: Journal Register will outsource most of its printing, sell most of its real estate, bring the audience into its newsrooms with more news cafes like their first one in Torrington, Conn. It will announce by year end that 25 percent of its revenue is from digital sources. It will also launch online-only startups in cities and towns near its existing markets, perhaps with niche print spinoffs. And finally, toward the end of 2011, we’ll see some reluctant and tentative emulation of Paton’s strategies among a few other newspaper groups.

How I did: Well, Journal Register indeed continues to point the way; its CEO John Paton now heads up an unusual management company that is running both JRC and MediaNews Group. Since then, Paton has moved quickly to consolidate the MNG-JRC management structures (with “new bosses” all around, although at this point some MNG editors know about “digital first” only from what they read in the media). So my “emulation” prediction is more than right with respect to MNG, but my outsourcing and startup predictions are off the mark. Paton hasn’t said how much of JRC’s revenue is digital now, but he did tell David Carr of the New York Times that it had more than quintupled during his watch, from $6 million in 2009 to a projected $32 million in 2011. I’m sure that’s not 25 percent of total ad revenue, though, but might be getting close to 20 percent (compared to an industry average of 13.2 percent). More significantly, Paton said that 60 percent of JRC’s digital revenue is digital-only, as opposed to print-driven digital “upsells” which still inflate the industry-reported numbers. Paton has also taken some first steps toward my prediction of “online-only startups in cities and towns near its existing markets” — in the form of ventures taking shape in his IdeaLab (now expanding with the addition of MNG), as well as his just announced DigitalFirst Ventures, which will make investments in tech start-ups focused in the areas of content, advertising and audience development.

Prediction for 2012: Let’s morph this one into a consolidation prediction — More newspapers and newspaper groups will be added under Paton’s Digital First management umbrella. Prime candidates include Lee Enterprises, which is now undergoing a strategic bankruptcy, just as MNG and JRC did; Philadelphia Media Network and Freedom Communications, both of which have major investments from Alden Global Capital which also has effective control of MNG and JRC; Tribune Corp., if it ever emerges from bankruptcy; and perhaps even Canada’s Postmedia Network, in which Alden has a stake and to which Paton has served as an advisor.

2011 Prediction: Newspaper advertising revenue . . . . My prediction is for a very flat year, with the quarterly totals (for print plus online revenue) coming in at Q1: +1.5%, Q2: +2.0%, Q3: no change and Q4: -3%.

How I did: Every year, I try for a pretty pessimistic newspaper ad revenue prediction, and every year, reality turns out to be worse. The actual results for the first three quarters were: Q1: -7.0%, Q2: -6.9%, Q3: -8.9%. What on earth was I thinking when I wrote “no change” for Q3? Since employment trends have gotten marginally better and the holiday shopping season seems to be off to a decent start, perhaps they can still bring in Q4 at -3%. That would make it the 22nd consecutive negative quarter for the industry, but the best since Q4 ’06, when the loss was only 2.2%.

Prediction for 2012: Sorry, but I have to continue to be pessimistic here. See my view below on the accelerating decline in newspaper circulation sales, precipitated by more widespread tablet adoption. Even with some improvement in the economic sectors that traditionally benefit newspapers, the disappearing print audience means ad revenue will continue to plummet: Q1: -6.0%, Q2: -8.0%, Q3: -9.0%, Q4: -10.0%.

2011 Prediction: Newspaper online ad revenue . . . . I predict newspaper online revenue will be: Q1: +5.0 percent, Q2: +3.0 percent, Q3: no change and Q4: no change.

How I did: A pleasant surprise here: The actual results were much better: Q1: +10.2%, Q2: +8.0%, Q3: +6.2% — but keep an eye on how much of that is driven by the aforementioned gimmicky upsells, in which online ads are sold as added value in print ad packages, with an arbitrary portion of the revenue journaled to the online side of the ledger. (At McClatchy, for example, less than 50 percent of online revenue is online-only; the majority is bundled with print.)

Prediction for 2012: Mr. Paton’s influence might be helpful in keeping the uptrend going here — although to keep up with the overall growth rate of online advertising, newspapers should be performing in the double digits. Maybe they can return to that territory by the second half of the year. My prediction:  Q1: +7.0%, Q2: +9.0%, Q3: +11.0%, Q4: +13.0%.

2011 Prediction: Newspaper circulation . . . . My prediction: down 5 percent in each of the spring and fall six-month ABC reporting periods. That will mean that by year’s end, print newspaper penetration will fall to about one in three households (a long way down from its postwar peak of 134 newspapers sold per 100 households in 1946).

How I did: This year, the industry sort of gets a pass, because it claims that because of Audit Bureau of Circulation rules changes, 2011 circulation results, as reported in the semi-annual FAS-FAX reports, can’t be compared with those from prior years. But I’m going to claim a partial win on this one, because figures reported by individual newspaper chains suggest that the 5 percent downtrend prediction is right, at least for weekday circulation For example, McClatchy reported weekday print circulation declines of 3.7% to 4.3% in the first three quarters, but its Sunday circulate swung from a loss of 2.8% in Q1 to a gain of 2.0% in Q3. Gannett reported that weekday circulation (excluding USA Today) was off 6% for the first nine months, but Sunday circulation was off just 1 percent. The New York Times Company was not specific but said print circulation volumes were still declining, as did Scripps.

Prediction for 2013: Print circulation (never mind those digital subscription), will drop 7% in the March 31 FASFAX report, and 10% in the Sept. 30 edition. That’s not all bad news, because much of the swing will be driven by increases in paid online access including facsimile editions and tablet versions. In other words, I think the 2012-2013 period (see how I hedge my bet there?) will turn out to be the tipping point where widespread tablet adoption leads to much more time spent reading news digitally, and print newspaper sales begin to drop precipitously. Of course, this brings its own problems — newspapers without solid digital strategies will not survive.

2011 Prediction: Online news readership. There are a couple of ways to look at this. For newspaper websites, NAA recently switched from Nielsen to Comscore because they liked Comscore’s numbers better. As a base measure, Comscore is showing about 105 million monthly unique visitors and 4 billion pageviews to newspaper sites, with the average visitor spending 3.5 minutes per visit. Prediction: all three of those metrics will stay flat (plus or minus 10 percent) during 2011. The other way to look at it is: Where are Americans getting their news? The Pew Research Center looks at this on an annual basis, and in 2010 showed online, radio, and newspapers more or less tied as news sources for Americans. Is there any doubt where this is going? In 2011, Pew might add mobile as a distinct source, but it will show online clearly ahead of newspapers and radio, with mobile ascendant.

How I did: The Comscore data reported monthly by NAA has shown some ups and downs in newspaper site unique visitors, with Q3 looking particularly positive with about 112 million versus about 105 million during the last few months of 2010, along with roughly 12-15 percent growth in page views and visits. Time spent per visit is essentially unchanged at 3.5 to 3.8 minutes. So we’re slightly better than my plus or minus 10 percent prediction there. Pew did take a closer look at mobile as a source for news, and found (in early 2011) that 47% of Americans were getting local news on cellphones or tablets, compared with just 26% who got news of any kind on cellphones a year earlier (tablets were not a factor yet at that time). So mobile news is indeed “ascendant.”

Prediction for 2012: We’ll see a lot more research during the year on how people are using smartphones and tablets for news, information and shopping. The smarter newspaper companies (Digital First, New York Times, and Hearst) will invest, perhaps jointly, in technology that can compete with Amazon and Google when it comes to not only connecting people with merchandise but actually delivering it to them. Although it would not be easy to do, newspapers could have an advantage in exploiting the local side of this opportunity — via your local news site or app, discover local goods and services, pay for them and have them delivered (perhaps even by the newspaper truck that drives by every house in the market every night…).

2011 Prediction: Newspaper chains. Nobody can afford to buy anybody else, and no non-newspaper companies want to buy newspapers. There might be some mergers, but really, there are no strategic opportunities for consolidation in this industry, because there are no major efficiencies or revenue opportunities to be gained. Everybody will just muddle along in 2011, with the exception of Journal Register, which as noted above will move into adjacent markets with digital products and generally show the way the rest should follow.

How I did: Indeed, there were no major ownership changes, but Journal Register was certainly prominent as part of a quasi-merger with MediaNews Group under John Paton’s new management company.

Prediction for 2012: See above, under Embracing Real Digital Strategies.

2011 Prediction: Stocks. The major indices will be up 15 to 20 percent by September, but they’ll drop back to a break-even position by the end of 2011. Newspaper stocks will not beat the market. Others: AOL and Google will beat the market; Yahoo and Microsoft will not.

How I did: I got the pattern right, but the Dow never made it up has high as 15% — it was up nearly 10% by mid-July, fell back precipitously, and is recently up about 5% since the end of 2010. As predicted, newspaper stocks are not close to beating the market, though: Gannett is off more than 11% year-to-date; McClatchy is down nearly 50%; New York Times is down over 20%; Media General is down 28%; Scripps is off 17%.  AOL (driven by ongoing doubts about its overall business model) is in the same boat as the newspaper companies, off 41%. Google is slightly ahead of the Dow; Yahoo is not (down 4%), nor is Microsoft (down 8%). So, all correct except AOL.

Prediction for 2012: The Eurozone crisis gives way to the dollarzone crisis as Congress continues to deadlock over budget and debt issues. The Dow falters, dropping 10% by mid-year. The prospect of a President Gingrich lifts hopes briefly, but when Obama is re-elected while Republicans retain the House and retake the Senate, it sinks another 5%. Newspaper stocks fail to beat the market, but all the digital giants (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Amazon, AOL and Apple) are all in positive territory well ahead of the Dow.

POSTED     Dec. 20, 2011, 9 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Predictions for Journalism 2012
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