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The Boston Courant: Proud not to have a website until the owner sees “a profitable end game”

Publisher David Jacobs says he has no interest in the web — at least not until someone else figures out a business model for it.

Eight years ago, David Jacobs, publisher of the weekly Boston Courant, paid a web designer in Ukraine to create a website for his newspaper. On that initial investment, and on subsequent research and development, the Courant spent a total of $50,000. The result is a slick, user-friendly layout.

But no one — save the Courant’s small staff, a few consultants, and me — has ever seen it.

“I won’t launch until I find a viable business model,” Jacobs told me. “We’ve never come close [to launching].”

BostonCourant.com — or whatever the heck Jacobs might call the site, if he ever buys a domain name for it — exists only on Jacobs’ desktop. The paper has no Twitter feed, no YouTube channel, no mobile app. It sort of has a Facebook page, but only because one was autogenerated from the Courant’s Wikipedia page. The Courant doesn’t control it.

But if the oldfangled Courant is doing journalism all wrong, someone forgot to tell its accountant. Circulation is at 40,000 and rising, the newsroom just moved into a swanky downtown office building, and the paper — which already covers four of Boston’s most affluent neighborhoods — is about to add two new full-time reporters to reach more of the city.

“In business, one of my philosophies has been the first pioneer into enemy territory gets all the arrows.”

“We have some major, major expansion plans,” Jacobs said. “One of the primary reasons for it is the fact that we don’t have a website.”

The crux of Jacobs’ argument is this: If the Courant had a website, some segment of its readership would ditch print. The paper wouldn’t lose subscription revenue, since it’s free anyway, but Jacobs strongly believes the digital migration would cripple ad sales. “If I had a website, I don’t know what type of value I could offer my advertisers,” he said.

I summarized Jacobs’ position for Reed Anfinson, the president of the National Newspaper Association. Anfinson said that there are plenty of community newspaper publishers on Jacobs’ side. “The question is what percentage of his income is going to be made off Internet, and what is he going to lose by going to the Internet?” Anfinson said. “And the odds are that he will make very little revenue off the web and lose a lot of print revenue.”

Anfinson, who publishes the Swift County (Minn.) Monitor-News — which has a website; current lead story: “Unusual animal caught in a raccoon trap in Swift County” — said plenty of community newspapers choose not to ride the digital bandwagon. In Anfinson’s Congressional district, for instance, there are a whopping 120 local papers, but only half, he estimates, have websites. Some are too small; others serve rural areas where Internet penetration remains shallow.

But these explanations hardly apply to the Boston Courant.

“How many millionaires do you think are in my primary coverage area?” Jacobs asked me. I hemmed and hawed, then ventured a guess: a couple thousand maybe. “Ten thousand plus!” Jacobs exclaimed. “I have the sort of readership that advertisers kill for.”

Jacobs believes the Courant, whose strength is in real estate and development news, produces unique content readers struggle to find elsewhere. If people can only read his paper in print, that’s what they’ll do, he says — and they’ll pay more attention to ads they see on newsprint than they would to ads on a screen.

Surveying the newspaper landscape, Jacobs can’t believe more of his colleagues haven’t reached the same conclusion. “This is not rocket science! It’s really not!” he said. “I see all of the other newspapers hemorrhaging. I am amazed that some publisher of a daily newspaper online — maybe not a regional one, like The Boston Globe and Boston.com — but some non-regional daily newspaper has not said, ‘Hey, we’re hemorrhaging money because of the web. Our print advertising is going down. We’re going to stop our website. We have the sort of news that no one can get anywhere else. If they want to get it, they’re going to have to read our newspaper, and our print advertisers are going to love us.’…What do you have to lose?”

In a more subdued moment, Jacobs conceded there is something to lose by digital abstinence. Without a website, he said, the Courant misses opportunities to break news between printings. “I was discussing this with one of my reporters yesterday,” Jacobs said. “She really wants to have a website, and I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because we break so many stories before even the dailies know about them, and if we’re the first to post, we get the recognition.’ I understand that, and no one is more competitive than me.

“But look,” he continued, “it’s a question of tradeoffs. My ego and my staff’s ego — which is very important because we’re all in this to be competitive — versus losing money.”

Jacobs chooses money over ego. For a long time, he chose money over journalism. Jacobs held leadership positions at school newspapers from junior high to college, but when he went to Columbia for graduate school, it was for an MBA, not a journalism degree.

“I got sidetracked for most of my life doing international merchant banking,” Jacobs said. “Believe me, I made a lot more money than I’m making now…And then I guess I reached the point in my life where I said, ‘What do I really want to do when I grow up?’ And it was, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to be a small-town newspaper publisher.’”

Jacobs started publishing the Courant in September 1995 and appears to have found his calling in his second career. But it’s the bottom-line focus developed in his first career that won’t abide a website.

“I love journalism, but I’m also a business man,” Jacobs said, “and I have to stay in business and hopefully not just stay where I am but grow…In business, one of my philosophies has been the first pioneer into enemy territory gets all the arrows. Let someone else pay. I’m not going to experiment unless I see a profitable end game. And the bottom line there is I see no possible way to benefit my print advertisers, who pay my reporters’ salaries and my overhead, by having a website.”

The Courant’s profit margin over the last two years has been “excellent,” Jacobs said, though he declined to quantify his paper’s success. “It’s enough that I’m expanding,” he offered, with a smile. “It’s all being done through retained earnings.”

In Jacobs’ mind, the print-only model ain’t broke, so he ain’t going to fix it. But for all his disparaging comments about digital media — “Right now they’re just toys, and no one knows how to play with them,” he told me — Jacobs is genuinely hopeful that some paper somewhere will develop a digital business strategy that can replicate the financial rewards of print.

“I’m praying that after all the investment, and all of the education at places like Columbia’s j-school, and all of the experiments that are going on at dailies and weeklies, that something’s gonna come of it,” he said. “But God knows what. As soon as we are able to develop a successful business model in-house, or a comparable newspaper comes up with a definite business model, I’ll launch a website within weeks.”

                                   
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  • http://twitter.com/melissabowerks Melissa Bower

    I like David Jacobs’ attitude. But I believe his methods overshadow a problem, especially if others try to emulate it. I don’t know his paper’s situation, but I would guess that with an attitude like his, he invests time and energy into the management of his newspaper. That investment is what makes profit. I strongly doubt his decision not to open up a website has anything to do with his company’s success. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a magic pill we could give our news companies, like getting rid of a website and social media, and everything would be OK and we would all be profitable again? I’ve encountered editors and publishers who try to think like Jacobs, but come up short because they are not prepared to put the time, money and effort into making a news organization successful.

  • http://twitter.com/RiteDomains RiteDomains.com

    Online media is the future in News of any kind. The day is at hand that to compete you will and must have ,Blog ,Website and so on.

  • Joe Banks

    What an enlightened attitude. While the technoratti will call him a luddite, I believe he understands that business models must exist in the present, and ads on print work for his advertisers and readers. When those advertisers say they want digital platforms, he’ll produce a digital product. Too many publishers are being told by their owners to get on with producing something the critical audiences do not want (yet).
    Long live print!

  • http://twitter.com/yelvington Steve Yelvington

    Enlightened? This guy is waiting for somebody to hand him the future with a bow around it. Doesn’t work that way. 

  • http://twitter.com/Greg_Reibman Greg Reibman

    Well we know for sure that Jacobs’ is a good salesman by virtue, it appears, of having sold Borchers his  story without providing verified revenue and expense numbers (or at least they don’t appear here). 

    That said, free community newspapers in markets with outstanding demographics do and should do well…even with a web presence.

  • Callmejen

    $50,000 to build a website?!

  • Joe Banks

    If not enlightened, then call him shrewd. He paid $50,000 for a website that he had built eight years ago, then he put it on ice and waited. In the meantime, he serviced the hell out of his clients, treated his staff with respect, managed a good newspaper and remained unapologetically local. It’s not what everybody else is doing, but rogues never do. In the meantime, the gross majority of newspapers are spending bucks to make dimes.

  • Callmejen

    A lot of community newspapers can survive on the idea that “they can’t get their news anywhere else.” But the truth is, most everyone can get their news somewhere else. NOT having a good digital presence has put a lot of weeklies out of business.

    Making it financially viable is something we are all working on. But this isn’t a toy, this is our livelihoods.

  • Djacobs

     Greg, privately held companies do not publicize their financials for competitive reasons. Our ad count and our help wanted postings should indicate something.

    Second, your former company has a market value of only $3.19 million in spite of 100+ weeklies and web sites in high demographic areas.

    I value cogent discussion, not cheap shots.

  • Djacobs

     Who cares about the future? I’m enjoying the present.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Saunders/603809847 Mike Saunders

    “On ice” is the right term here because such an outdated site is DOA. First, consider that $50,000 is an eye-opening amount for a website for a free regional publication with minimal content and little need for anything more than a glorified WordPress setup — especially when you consider that it would need serious updating to be able to handle newer types of ad feeds.

    Also, if the content is worth something, people will pay to read digital editions. The Sunday NYT on my driveway is just a lagnaippe on top of the content I get on my tablet and phone. More media outlets are starting to realize that. 

  • Anonymous

    It appears that “BostonCourant” is a valid domain. Hopefully Jacobs at least snaps-up and sits on the “TheBostonCourant” at the very least, before some link farm appears under that name.

  • Anonymous

    “the newsroom just moved into a swanky downtown office building”

    Uh … where’s the profitable business model in that?

  • Mterenzio

    Right Steve, The false premise this story is based upon is that circulation and advertising would remain stronger if only newspapers went without a website. If we gather the stats from newspapers with websites and those without I’ll bet both cases follow along the industry average as far as circulation and revenue decline. I’ll bet my career on it.

  • Christyrobinson23

    $50K? Apparently he cared about web at some point because he spent an unholy amount on a website for a small news operation. And I’m not sure how a site built eight years ago could even generously be considered “slick.” The second he gets any semblance of competition, his readers, the ones Jacobs treats with contempt and apparently cares least about in all of this (“If they want to get it, then they’re going to have to read our newspaper”), will bolt. Then I’d like a follow-up on how he explains his business plan to his advertisers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eric-Poole/1494638422 Eric Poole

    This story is an engraved invitation for someone like the Boston Globe to move in with a reporting presence, start spanking Jacobs’ little weekly both daily in print and steadily online and wipe his paper out of existence, then collect most of his 40,000 subscribers.

    That said, Jacobs brings up a salient point – that online ads provide little value to a business. Print ads just sit there at the lower corner of my page and mind their own business. Online ads interfere with the user’s enjoyment of the internet by slowing everything down and just generally getting in the way. If I owned a company, I’d buy advertising with videos and lots of graphics that make the newspaper’s web site take forever to open, and with popups as well – and it would all have the name and logo of my main competitor.

  • Kend

    As someone trained in broadcast media and software coding, I’ll throw out that $50,000 is not unusually high for a well-designed interactive web site. 

    Where I do find a bit of confusion with Mr. Jacobs (since I’ve never seen his product) is that a person cannot find what he prints anywhere online – a boast that’s almost impossible to believe. One might not be able to find his writer’s views on topics, but finding information about the topics at large is a simple process once a person becomes aware of how the internet works (something I don’t believe Mr. Jacobs fully understands).

    What I find most telling is that it’s obvious Mr. Jacobs does not know how analytics and metrics are used online, which produce profit when done properly. There’s plenty of proof to back up this claim.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kennedy/1813701 Dan Kennedy

    David Jacobs doesn’t have to experiment, because he can watch other newspaper publishers experiment. I can’t say I’m a fan of his approach, but I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss it. It’s working for him, even though there’s already a Boston Globe “Your Town” site and a Patch covering the Back Bay.

  • Sharon Hill

    Oh my. It works today so let’s not plan for tomorrow. Sure, that works – NOT. Ask any newspaper classified manager the effect of ignoring Craigslist. It’s all well and good to say that you have lots of print readers and advertisers and you’re getting more money for it than you would for Web ads, but I bet I can guess the age demographic of those print readers. Want to guess what % will be reading in 10 years? Probably few. And to spend $50k on the design of something you’re not going to use, without spending a penny to determine the monetization of it, or the tools to monetize? That’s just nuts. I can’t believe this article even suggests that there are not best practices in digital monetization all over the place. There certainly are. If only he had saved his ridiculous $50k Web-design fee and spent instead about one tenth of that in consulting fees paid to folks who could have told him and shown him how to take his publication to the Web with success….Add to that the issue of retaining and attracting quality staff when even he suggests that they’re frustrated by his refusal to change, and you have a disaster in the offing.  Basing tomorrow’s plans on what works today is the reason newspapers are in decline. SHEESH.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001133588038 Won Gi Kevin Jung

    I personally agree on Jacob’s viewpoint, yet only to the extent of such local newspaper publishing corporations. He doesn’t demand extensive domain of readers, nor need to acquire wide recognition from the ‘foreign’ readers; his consumer pool is limited, and his goal is definite, thus no techy-implement is needed for his Boston Courant… only proper management and MBA profit model is enough for his business. On the other hand, I doubt his idea could be applied to any other types of journalism.

  • phil loubere

    Interesting to read so many predictions of Jacobs’ impending demise, which seem to be based on faith that the Web already provides everything readers want, that his content is probably already there. For such local reporting, it probably isn’t, and even if it was, it’s not easy to find. A primary service of a newspaper is to not just find news but to organize it and present it in an ordered fashion. People don’t search for news that they don’t know exists yet: Google doesn’t do that for you. And most news sites are great at posting a stream of breaking news but are not particularly good at organizing and presenting it.  
    And to expect him to come up with the business model that works on the Web, when nobody else really has? He’s probably smart to wait and see how it plays out.
    As for the $50k, you get what you pay for. If you want a wordpress site that will be indistinguishable from the millions of other ones that no one reads, good luck.  

  • Pat Taylor

    Interesting article and thread. Mr. Jung, you hit a very salient point about the limited reach and/or interest of hyper-local community papers, online or in print.  They don’t get national advertising for print for the same reason that a million page views a month for a web site don’t get noticed by web advertisers.  It’s hard to sell what you give away, and the hard reality is that no one has come up with a great business model for making money as a local newspaper website.  But the web DOES drain subscribers away from the print product.  Lower subscriber numbers equate directly to lower revenue and lower profits, and weaken the positive response to print advertising because there are fewer readers seeing the offer.  That’s Jacobs’ basic argument. For years, newspapers chased the wrong things in unique visitors and page views, most of which will never contribute one dime to the good guys, as things stand.  For a Huffington Post, which aggregated millions of readers by borrowing heavily from others’ intellectual property, the model worked because it reached critical mass early on, with little structural cost.  When newspapers decide they will no longer give their efforts away en masse to attract occasional readers, the model may become a little clearer and online community journalism may find a way to pay for itself. Until then, we keep trying to solve a conundrum.

  • Kend

    Re: “People don’t search for news that they don’t know exists yet: Google doesn’t do that for you.”

    Phil: 

    And this is where those who don’t know clash with those who do. Google News can be set up to do exactly this, under a variety of topics – as can Yahoo! News and Bing News (and these are only three of many). You may subscribe and be feed information from a large number of sources, in multiple categories (filed as local, national, and international) on all.

    There is no impending demise for Mr. Jacobs. Not in his remaining career years. What is being pointed to here – I believe – is that his niche is exactly that, his.  For those on his staff who are attempting to nudge “The Boston Courant” into more modern news gathering/reporting options, how marketable will their skills be in 10 years?

  • Jungleoutthere

    From Buffalo 2/20: “The paper also reported that The News’ profit declined by more than 40 percent in 2011, to just below $10 million. Revenues totaled $102.4 million, a 5 percent drop.Ad sales came in at $65.6 million. Four years ago The News reported $104 million in ad revenues.Digital revenues grew by 14 percent to $5 million from $4.4 million.”So let’s see. Print revenue down $37 million; digital revenue up $600,000. And some see web as the future for newspapers? Like Borders? Like Blockbuster? Like the Postal Service? Go, Mr. Jacobs!

  • Andrew Gentry

    These detractors of yours that make their living as digital futurists generally avoid the realities of the bottom-line today and are never held accountable.  Always the promise of becoming, never of being. Down south, we call that perpetually betting on the come. I’ve been hearing of the promise of digital for more than a decade, but all its done thus far was drain resources with promises of big things down the road.  And now we’ve put these guys on top, not on tap, as Neuharth used to say, by this digital first nonsense.  I’ll believe it when I see it. Most of these guys are like anyone else, in my opinion – trying to get to retirement by outrunning the rock as it careens downhill.

  • phil loubere

    But that’s not how people consume news. I’ve worked at publications that have tried this feature of letting people design their own feeds, but few take advantage of it. If you ask most people what topics they want, they wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know, I just want to know what’s going on in any topic if it’s interesting. That’s the job of a news publication, whether in print or online – to tell you what you don’t know, but organized so you don’t have to sift through hundreds or thousands of sources. I want an experienced editor to do that for me. That’s not google news or yahoo news – all they do is pick up AP or Reuters stories, but without categorizing and contextualizing them. That’s not a very good news service. 

    And as long as the Courant provides local content that is probably not on the Internet, it has valuable content. That doesn’t become obsolete. 

  • robelroy

    Mr. Jacobs, I admire you. To my dying day, I will always wonder why people can never see what is right in front of their face. I do not work in journalism, but have loved newspapers my entire life. I am terribly sad to see these people throw it all away. They will not listen to you, Sir, but thank you. At least one person is stating that the Emperor, indeed, has no clothes.

  • robelroy

    He is growing his business, and it seems like all you have to offer in retort are a bunch of abstract statements and conjectures.

  • robelroy

    It means that it is working fabulously well.

  • robelroy

    I would like to put out a wager with someone…contact me and I will give my real name and will pay out real money. Here is the wager:

    1. If the New York Times flagship paper (not the whole company) does not reverse its revenue declines and grow within one year of the inception of the paywall, I will pay you $1000.00. If the New York Times DOES grow revenue, you owe me $500.00. Any takers? About a month left until the anniversary.

  • http://twitter.com/MelTaylorMedia Mel Taylor

    We love when this happens. 

    Local publisher puts up a paywall, or decides to have no site at all. We quickly move into that market. We install a low-cost CMS platform that features aggregation and proprietary editorial from a few local editors/writers. We then contract with stringers, a call center to set up client meetings, a local sales rep firm, and 3rd party revenue vendors.We love guys like David Jacobs. He can have the current print revenue in that market. We’ll take the the fast growing web budgets.  Seems to me, that Mr Jacobs is still blindly following journo-focused pundits & bloggers that claim to be searching for sustainable, online business models for news.Those models already exist. God Bless Mr Jacobs.

    Mel Taylor
    http://www.MelTaylorMedia.com

  • Anonymous

    Re: “But that’s not how people consume news.”
    Phil: You’ll find no argument from me on most of this – today. Habits do take awhile to change but, when the floodgates open – as they did for newspapers with Craigslist (and auto advertising in print) – there’s no stopping the flow. Those media that refused to prepare for change are left looking for new revenue streams or folding. As more local merchants explore accountable advertising, this move of ad dollars will quicken.
    Mr. Jacobs has found his niche, and is being rewarded for it. From my view, though, a  staunch refusal to explore the future for any business is a methodical way to end up with little relevance. His readership (and, I am just guessing) is in the same demo as Mr Jacobs, which will soon die off. (Where do you fit, demographically?)  The Boston Courant’s employees’ skills will soon be sparsely needed in an industry that’s moved on. As a BTW: I’m 60, and use the above mentioned news services from Google and Bing.
    I stated my experience is outside newspapers, in broadcast (and software design), so I’ll use radio’s “Music of Your Life” format – or the older “Elevator Music” stations as examples of my thinking on “The Boston Courant’s” approach. Both are dead in radio.
    For Mr. Jacobs, it’s great now and he reaps the rewards. Just, how many people in your response of “that’s not how people consume news” are in the lower end 18-35 demo groups. The data I see says news consumption is changing quickly in these groups. Go to a college campus an observe the students for a day. Look for newspaper distribution boxes while you’re there.
    If you don’t change distribution, with the younger folks’ changed habits, now, you will lose them forever.
    Good discussion. Thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/mikedonatello Mike Donatello

    Archetype of the risk-averse publisher. His strategy of milking a loyal segment makes perfect sense, if he does not care about the longevity of his business.

    Then again, if he’s such a shrewd businessman, why the heck did he fork over $50K for a site design without any business plan behind it?

  • http://twitter.com/mikedonatello Mike Donatello

    No offense, but this has been the industry’s mantra for decades. I don’t hear too many others congratulating themselves on that decision.

  • Be Prepared

    So we as a news business are just supposed to turtle and hide our heads in our shells and hope the internet goes away? I understand the fact the print is a more lucrative business model, but the proliferation of the ‘digital lifestyle (tablets/smart phones/laptops)’ are quickly making that model obselete…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001133588038 Won Gi Kevin Jung

    Thank you for your reply. Many shortsighted newspaper publishers and local media enterprises failed to achieve the expected goal, for they didn’t notice the crux of the newspaper business: ads and profit. I don’t have much insight on journalism business, nor I have profound experiences in the field, but I hardly doubt that the economies of scale can also be applied to the journalism business. Though, influences of viral marketing through the online subscription and sporadic exposures in internet network cannot be ignored. (at least in South Korea, I consider, the magnitude of such strategy is noticeable) Still, I agree on Jacob’s viewpoint. Perhaps, as you said, this bewildering puzzle could only be resolved by further researches and accomplishments of SNS journalism.

  • http://twitter.com/Greg_Reibman Greg Reibman

     Dave: It’s unfortunate that you saw this as a cheap shot at you when I was really challenging the reporter’s claims of your success without offering the numbers to verify it. 

    Then again, maybe I struck a nerve?

  • Joe Banks

    Mr. Jacobs will not concern himself with the pennies you are picking up while he makes dollars. Insta-sites like yours come and go with tedious regularity in communities, and most people don’t read them. If they did, we’d already be getting our news from them. Ask a random citizen in the street where they get their news, and guaranteed your freezer-dried, templated sites aren’t among them.

  • http://twitter.com/benilfeld Ben Ilfeld

    David, I’m glad you are doing what you love and making a profit. I’m glad you are focusing on what you can deliver for your community.

    That does not mean that others are unable to make money online. There is no “secret” to making money with online ads. It is the fastest growing segment of the advertising industry, now at $30 billion dollars. Online advertising has eclipsed print in the UK and just yesterday in Russia. In the US, it will likely eclipse print in 2012.

    People who make and distribute content are also making money online as well as those who provide services. Niche sites like the Gawker group sites or Mashable are serious businesses and have been for years. Networks like Federated Media help them navigate those waters.

    Traditional newspapers and weeklies also have found ways to make money with a hybrid approach. In fact, in competitive markets, the issues that most adversely affected newspapers had nothing to do with the newspaper website competing with print, but with services delivered online competing with services that used to be bundled in newspapers. Take classifieds for example. Online, the tools are better and cheaper thanks to sites like careerbuilder and cars.com. It’s a good thing that newspaper conglomerates invested in these tools, because as their classified revenue plummets, they are seeing profits from owning those ventures. Ask McClatchy if they would even be in business were it not for investments in digital.

    Take a long look at Digital First while you’re at it. They produce both dailies and hundereds of weeklies and their new strategy has pulled them up out of a bankruptcy.

    Disruptive news organizations can deliver general news too. I visited The Huffington Post a couple weeks ago. They also operate a huge and growing newsroom out of a slick downtown office. They got there by creating a large and engaged audience that advertisers pay to access, just like you.

    Now, all of this is not to say that you should be like any of the examples above. I believe strongly that we are best when we serve our community the way we know best. I know digital—you know print. I believe weekly print newspapers will be around for a long time. Even daily print papers still make money one day a week: Sunday. Keep serving your community and delivering profits and growth to spite the nay-sayers! And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There may not be a “first mover” advantage online, and if your audience demands it, you can always respond with a new strategy (although, an 8 year old site will probably not be the one you launch).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=746024743 Markus Menno Jong

    Why did he hire somebody from the Ukraine for 50.000 $ ? Why not somebody from Boston ?