The Observer piece featured numerous punches of its own: “The website redesign and relaunch cost the Dolans $4 million, according to [Newsday Publisher Terry] Jimenez,” wrote the Observer’s John Koblin. “With those 35 people, they’ve grossed about $9,000… Mr. Jimenez was in no mood to apologize. ‘That’s 35 more than I would have thought it would have been,’ said Mr. Jimenez…”
“We’re the freebie newsletter that comes with your HBO,” one Newsday reporter was quoted as saying.
Newsday reporter and Local 406 Vice Steward Michael Amon, who was also quoted in the Observer story—seeking clarification from Jimenez [he tells the Press he thought he maybe misheard the figure]—says the numbers caught he and others in attendance a bit off guard.
“I was shocked and I think other people were, too,” says Amon. “It’s just a low number. I don’t pretend to know what the future of newspaper journalism is online and whether we need a pay wall or not, but it just seemed, as a journalist, you want to have the most number of people reading your stuff. As a writer, you want to have the largest audience possible, and, to see such a low number, was, just a little bit disheartening.”
“That’s disappointing no matter how you slice it,” he explains. “Because, I think people look at that as: This was a website that cost $4 million to erect, and it’s only generating that many subscribers? That doesn’t bode well for our future.”
Clement tells the Press she wasn’t surprised one bit by the low subscribers, due to the paper’s “badly designed” site. Current and former longtime Newsday employees commiserate that the new, costly redesign under Krenek—Newsday’s new top editor—has resulted in, says one, “so many complaints from far and wide about that site.” The primary complaint: It’s less navigable than Newsday’s previous design.
“People say they can’t find stories,” the reporter says, “it’s kind of hard to get around… If you don’t have information that people have got to get, then they’ll get it somewhere else.”
To be clear, that’s not to say that only 35 people were reading Newsday.com, just that of every single person in the world not a subscriber to either the print edition of Newsday or Optimum Online, only 35 people deemed the subscription to be worth the cost. (Exact figures are difficult to obtain, but for some context: According to the company’s own estimates, approximately 75 percent of Long Island households are Optimum Online subscribers. That’s a lot of people. On the other hand, 25 percent of Long Island—plus 100 percent of the rest of the world—is also a lot of people.)
And while that number—35—was also found to be shockingly low by many pundits, Cablevision made it clear that new subscribers were entirely beside the point. In response to the Observer piece, President of Cablevision’s Local Media Group Tad Smith crafted a memorandum to “All Local Media Staff,” in which he noted, “The way to measure success for Newsday.com is not [t]o count how many people sign up to pay $260 per year for access to the website. Our objective instead is to grow our target audience’s utilization of Newsday.com’s great content and tools.”
Mark Potts, a former journalist at The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, among other major publications, concurs. In a Jan. 29 post on his website, RecoveringJournalist.com, Potts wrote that the Newsday model is unique, shrewd and—maybe—sustainable.
“What Cablevision and Newsday don’t want—just don’t care about—is non-Long Island subscribers,” wrote Potts. “Buh-bye. Take a hike. Adios. (Or pay $5 a week/$260 a year for access.) Those distant subscribers can’t be monetized through local advertising, the reasoning goes, so why bother with them? … Like it or not, the unusual strategy seems to be working just fine.”
Yet not everyone agrees. Jay Rosen is a professor of journalism at New York University and author of PressThink.org, a “weblog about journalism and its ordeals.” Rosen recognizes that Newsday’s situation is unique, but he sees long-term dangers in their strategy.
“There isn’t any data anywhere that shows the next generation of news users picking up the habit of a newspaper,” says Rosen. “So what [Cablevision is] doing, it’s called ‘harvesting.’ They’re going to harvest the remaining years of profits from Newsday, the print product, without trying to create another generation of subscribers… [Cablevision is] basically saying that there is no future to this product.”
Steve Buttry spent 38 years in the newspaper business; he is currently director of community engagement at Allbritton Communications and his blog offers extensive “commentary on issues in journalism and efforts to develop new business models for the news media.” Buttry shares Rosen’s view.
“[The pay wall] is a decision not to pursue the prosperous future that awaits innovative and imaginative companies pursuing digital opportunities,” says Buttry. “This is pretty much saying, ‘We don’t care about the digital audience; 35 [subscribers] is OK with us.’ And however you [present that number to the public], that’s a stunning figure. Because there are thousands and thousands of people on Long Island who don’t subscribe to Newsday or to Cablevision, and to have only 35 of them decide to pay for [the site] is a stunning statement of [its perceived] value.”
Furthermore, Buttry doesn’t think Cablevision’s plan—pretty succinctly surmised by Davidoff in his bacon analogy—has much merit on its face.
“I think if Cablevision isn’t delivering value in its cable service, which is its core business, then a throw-in of access to news—much of which can be found elsewhere—is not going to make a big difference,” he says. “That’s not to say that people don’t enjoy reading Newsday online. But if you get pissed off at the cable company, you’re not going to not leave the cable company because you can read Newsday online.”