Peck: digital media needs to be profitable
By Austin Ramsey
Murray State University
Chris Peck, editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., and Guy Tasaka, the self-proclaimed “Forrest Gump” of digital publishing, agreed the best way to describe the role of newspapers’ transitions to the mobile medium was by way of baseball.
Peck and Tasaka spoke at the Tablet/Mobile Strategies and Visions For News Organizations conference in St. Louis in a session titled “Integrating Tablets into a Paid Digital Strategy.”
Peck said the St. Louis Cardinals’ narrow win over the Houston Astros Wednesday, Sept. 28, that unexpectedly led the Cardinals into the playoffs, was not unlike newspapers nationwide attempting a comeback after years of declining profits.
“If you think back a month ago, the Cardinals were out of it,” he said. “And through a combination of events, some good fortune and some gritty play at the end, they made the playoffs. The newspaper industry is trying to draw some strings from that.”
The two organized their session by explaining to a group of around 40 media and consultant representatives how they had worked together the past year on a nearly $1 million dollar project to unveil a new mobile presence for The Commercial Appeal.
Peck said significant staff layoffs and circulation cuts of up to 100,000, had not rescued the CA from declining profits over the past three years – a trend he said is not uncommon. He didn’t blame the low profits on a lessened demand for news content, but rather on a shifting consumption base.
“This country needs journalism more than it ever has,” he said. “Unfortunately, (newspapers) have never been at a more weakened state.”
Tasaka agreed and cited forecaster’s reports that Apple, Inc., may have up to 100 million iPods on the market by 2012.
He said his work with launching The New York Time’s first web editions and recent consultations out of a digital publishing solutions media group has given him firsthand experience in consumers’ shift to mobile media.
“I know what worked, and I know what didn’t work,” he said. And Tasaka said, while he knew making profits with news applications for tablet computers and smart phones could be done for the CA, it would take a well thought-out strategy.
Peck and Tasaka laid their initial strategies out for the audience.
They showed how The Commercial Appeal, one of oldest papers in the south, and the longest-lasting business in Memphis, maintained three objectives in the platform and subscription redesign of last year.
The first was to create and maintain a revenue model for mobile products that could generate both advertising and subscription revenue. Second, the paper set out to link new paid digital subscriptions with print subscriptions to add value to the Sunday edition, which Peck said generates a significant portion of the paper’s weekly profits. Finally, the paper purposed itself to design an interface that would allow for digital expansion, while providing the optimal news consumption experience for readers.
Tasaka displayed a graph that showed the monetary trend of how developing more digital interface while removing the free-for-all feature of the content could add greater real and perceived value to print subscriptions.
The three factors represented in the graph showed a less severe decline in profitability the more media content was provided on and the stricter the content source was on preventing free-rider use.
“That space between the lines,” he said, “that’s revenue.”
Peck said the complete content normalization engine he and staff built with the help of Tasaka included a 10-story per month limit before paid online and media subscription, along with a complete news app suite on both tablet and smartphone formats.
The new formats, officially launched Sunday, Oct. 2, will represent a changing of times in the newspaper industry, Peck said.
His daily paper, the largest of the E. W. Scripps Company, will still be published, but with further efforts toward mobile digital media formats.
“We can’t let go of print, because that’s where the money is,” he said.
Peck admitted that, while advertising on the new apps is limited – a single advertisement thus far – his team is working on broadening that number.
The two-day conference was co-sponsored by The American Society of News Editors, the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the Digital Publishing Alliance and the Mid-America Press Institute.