Barbara Howard: Well it's no secret that newspapers and magazines, which have always relied on income from advertising and subscriptions, have been struggling to find their footing in the Internet age. But now, a new generation of moguls has stepped up to take ownership — Jeff Bezos, the Globe's John Henry here in Boston. With us to talk about this is Northeastern University associate professor of journalism and WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy. He's been covering the media for decades. He has a new book out. It's called, “The Return of the Moguls." Hi, Dan.
Dan Kennedy: Hi, Barbara.
Howard: So you lay out the problem in your book — in just nine years from the year 2005 to 2014, combined print and digital ad revenues nationwide plummeted from almost $50 billion to just about $20 billion. So how can newspapers survive?
Kennedy: It's been a very rough road, that's for sure. And when I started looking at this issue in 2013, when Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post and John Henry bought the Boston Globe, they were entering the business at almost the exact moment when we were all beginning to realize that the hope for free news online supported by advertising was not working and might never work. So the challenge that they have faced — and they've each approached it in different ways — is to try to move to a system in which readers are paying for the news.
Howard: Well, why would they take this on? It seems like a very chancy proposition.
Kennedy: It does seem like a chancy proposition, and I think it was a combination of feeling that they had a civic responsibility to try to step in and save these papers and, frankly, ego. And I think that they've found that it's a lot harder than they thought, although Jeff Bezos has been very successful.
Howard: Is he making money?
Kennedy: The Washington Post claims that it has been profitable each of the last two years.
Howard: Maybe it just has good journalism, they certainly have been getting a lot of play.
Kennedy: They have terrific journalism. They have Marty Baron as the executive editor.
Howard: The former editor of the Globe.
Kennedy: That's right, probably the best editor in newspapers today.
Howard: Now what about the Boston Globe?
Kennedy: By all indications the Globe is doing OK. It's losing money. They have adopted some strategies that could lead to breaking even in the next few years. Probably the most important of those strategies is that they've gone all-in on charging for digital subscriptions. Frankly, they charge more than just about any newspaper in the country. They charge $30 a month, and they've had some success with that. They are expected to reach 100,000 digital subscriptions by the end of June, and what they say is that if they can get to 200,000 digital subscribers, they suddenly start to look like a financially sustainable newspaper. But the problem is the downward pressures are still there, and I think that the problem has proven to be more difficult to solve than John Henry thought it was when he bought the Globe. You do wonder if he's going to be willing to sustain losses forever.
Howard: This is an interesting model, because if it's important to have an informed electorate, and newspapers and magazines cannot be profitable, is it providing a service like the police department, or the fire department? It's a public service, and you wouldn't expect the fire department to be profitable. Is the model just completely on its head?
Kennedy: It is, but I mean, I have to say that Jeff Bezos and John Henry have been determined to operate their businesses as either break even or profitable businesses. And if they're able to do that, they may be able to show the way for newspaper owners who are less well-heeled than they are how to do it, how to make a little bit of money, and not have to absolutely gut your news operation the way we've seen with so many newspapers in this country.
Howard: Thank you so much, Dan.
Kennedy: Thank you, Barbara.
Howard: That's Dan Kennedy, Northeastern University associate professor of journalism and WGBH News contributor. He's been covering the media for decades. His new book is called “The Return of the Moguls.”