If You Care About Good Journalism, Two Questions

By Jack Limpert

How do you pay for good journalism?

How do you get people to read good journalism?

Here is how a magazine like The Washingtonian, during my time there, paid for good journalism.

We had a circulation of 150,000, and those subscribers and newsstand buyers generated $4 million a year in circulation revenue.

We had a well-educated, upscale audience and advertisers paid $11 million a year to run ads to reach that audience.

So $15 million a year in revenue.

We needed a staff of 50 to do this. Maybe 17 in editorial, another 17 in advertising, the rest in production, accounting, promotion, and administration.

We had to lease an office: About $1 million a year.

Then we had to buy paper, get the magazine printed ($1.5 million a year), mailed to subscribers, shipped to newsstands. You needed people to sell the ads, an art department to design the magazine, circulation people to manage the subscriptions and newsstand sales, production people to get the magazine out on time and to the printer, accounting people to do the billing, get the money, and count the money, a publisher to oversee it all. Plus lawyer bills. etc.

We spent about $2 million a year in editorial.

The bottom line was that the magazine made a profit and was, and is, a good place to work.

The numbers are changing in the digital age. Print circulation at many publications is down about five percent a year. Advertising revenue is down about the same. But a print magazine or newspaper can still bring in really meaningful revenues, buying time to do well in the digital future.

The Washingtonian’s print and digital audience? It’s now about 400,000 print readers (assuming three readers per copy) and 800,000 monthly visitors to the magazine’s website. Media experts talk about print dollars and digital dimes: For every $1 million in print revenue, there’ll be maybe $100,000 in website revenue. (Mobile devices like iPhones? They bring in pennies, not dollars.)

The challenge is that while the print revenues are going down, the digital revenue at most publications isn’t growing. Ads on the screen rarely work. People are happy to scan a magazine or newspaper and look at the ads. Online, people don’t so much scan as seek specific information, meaning the ads don’t attract much attention.

How can a newspaper or magazine increase its  digital revenue? A paywall that makes people pay for online content? Getting an advertiser to sponsor a section of the  website? Enhanced listings (if there’s a list of top doctors, you can pay extra to make your listing stand out)? Getting an advertiser to sponsor an e-mail newsletter? No clear strategy has emerged.

If you’re interested in good journalism, the key number is the $2 million we spent to have talented reporters and editors produce useful, interesting stories that were read by lots of people. Could you have a website that spent $2 million a year to produce good journalism and have it delivered at much lower cost? Sure, though you’d probably need another $1 million a year for overhead (IT people, designers, accountants, etc.).

Where would the $3 million a year come from to pay for that good website journalism? If you’re going to predict the future of news, you better have an answer.
Equally important: How do you get people to read good journalism?

As an editor, I sometimes thought of news content in dining terms. Successful magazines and newspapers produced a complete meal. At The Washingtonian, the best-read parts of the magazine were best restaurants, top doctors, great getaways. Readers liked the front-of-the-book gossip section—what’s really going on at the Washington Post or inside the Redskins’ locker room? Who’s up or down at the White House, on the Hill? They liked the monthly feature about who was buying or selling a house.

Along with what we saw as public service journalism, we also offered a lot of the kind of stories that attracted lots of readers.

Does public service journalism alone bring in readers? I started at The Washingtonian in 1969, the same year Charlie Peters started the Washington Monthly. Charlie assembled a staff of bright young people, many from Harvard, some of whom have gone on to become the country’s most important journalists.

Back then the Washington Monthly had a national circulation of maybe 20,000. In Washington we had a circulation of 150,000. Charlie had almost no ad revenue, we had lots of ad revenue. If you cared about the country and its politics and government, the Monthly might have been your favorite magazine. But for lots of people, the Monthly was like a dinner of broccoli without a drink, appetizer, and dessert. The Monthly had an elite audience but it was small. As smart  and public spirited as Charlie was, he struggled for readers and revenue.

Publications that don’t have enough readers and revenue can come up with great journalism—the romantic ideal. But it’s the exception, not the rule. After 50 years in journalism, working for winners and losers, I think the winners—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, the Atlantic—have the best reporters, writers, and editors. They do the kind of great journalism that inspires the rest of us and helps people understand what’s at stake when they vote.

Back in 1992, James Carville  helped mastermind the election of Bill Clinton as president with the words, “It’s the economy, stupid.” If you now want to look at where magazines and newspapers are going, don’t forget the revenue numbers. If  you want great journalism, somebody has to pay for it. In the immortal words of Cuba Gooding,  “Show me the money.”

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