Monday, June 29, 2009

Mark Sanford and the future of newspapers

I haven't been blogging much over the last couple of weeks because I was working on some other stuff. So now I am going to catch up on some things I missed.

First up is Mark Sanford. The governor of South Carolina went out of town for a few days and, beyond anyone's expectations, came back to become much more famous (and infamous) than he was previously. Then, the next day, two very famous people died, and he was off the public's radar.

I don't want to condemn the man, or even comment on the blatant hypocrisy of a man who runs as a pro-family values candidate and then cheats on his wife. I do find it interesting that the public seems to have a finely nuanced understanding of these scandals. Some people are run out of office forthwith; see Spitzer, Eliot. Some survive, although they are damaged. See Clinton, Bill, and Vitter, David. Americans seem to be able to make fine distinctions based on the facts of the case. Bill Clinton cheated on his wife, but didn't break any laws in the process, and already had a reputation as a womanizer. Most people decided that it was a matter better left to he and Hillary. Spitzer, on the other hand, was a figure of rectitude, quite self-righteous, and broke laws. He didn't just get a blowjob; he crossed state lines and hooked up with a prostitute. The public understood that Spitzer was worse than Clinton.

What I found fascinating about the Sanford story were a couple of minor details about how it was covered. I first noticed it at TPM. The earliest post about it that I can find is from Monday, June 22nd. I remember thinking that it was odd that TPM was paying any attention to it - so the governor of South Carolina is incommunicado, so what? But then it started getting interesting very quickly. So that was a good catch on the part of TPM. I would not have known about it unless TPM caught it, because I have no reason to check in on South Carolina politics unless something very interesting is going on, and TPM found something very interesting very quickly.

What is more interesting is that this had great benefits for The State, South Carolina's major daily. They caught onto the story very early, and the traffic for their Website apparently just boomed. They've got a good timeline.

In the pre-Internet days, this would have been good for The State, but they could not have made that much money off of it, at least not right away. They would have sold more newspapers, but newspaper companies don't make a lot of money off of selling the physical copies of their newspaper; the price of the paper basically covers the cost of producing it. I delivered newspapers when I was a kid, and the paper didn't get the full price of the paper. First, subscriptions are discounted. Second, I took a cut of the price as my pay. So for a twenty-five cent newspaper delivered to someone's door, the paper might get only twelve cents.

Pre-Internet, The State would benefit by generating publicity for itself. It might win an award or two. And it might win over a few more subscribers. But suppose it sells 200,000 daily copies (that's a guess, but it's probably not far off). Management knows that this is a hot story, so they print an extra 20,000 copies, or 10% more, for three days. That extra 60,000 or so copies might slightly raise the average number of papers it sells, which might slightly increase the rates it charges advertisers. But there would not be an immediate, tangible benefit for the paper itself. I doubt they can charge the advertisers more for selling extra copies, although I suppose it's possible.

Today, however, the benefit is clear, immediate, and very tangible. Pre-Internet, The State would not have been able to sell extra papers in, say, New York or Washington, let alone another country, like, say, Argentina. Now, however, they generated a huge amount of traffic around the country, and around the world, almost instantaneously.

The best part for this newspaper is that that extra traffic on their Website generates extra revenue for very little extra cost. The primary cost is bandwidth, which is cheap and getting cheaper. Newspapers have one advantage on the Web, which is that they deliver valuable information primarily in the form of text, which takes up a minimal amount of bandwidth. But their ads are in the form of pictures, text, and video. Presumably they charge dramatically more for a video ad than for a simple picture. So the more bandwidth they use for delivering ads, the more money they make. They can control how much text and pictures they deliver, so they can control the amount of bandwidth they use in terms of content versus ads.

The other costs involved here - i.e., paying the reporters and editors, as well as other overhead - are already taken into account. There are no extra costs involved in covering this particular story. All they have to do is send a reporter to an airport that is fairly close, make a bunch of phone calls, and set up a video camera at the governor's press conference.

This whole episode bodes well for newspapers than can move quickly and cover a story like this. And there will always be stories like this. The State had emails between the governor and his lover. Why? Because someone had forwarded the emails to this particular newspaper. Why? Because if you have information that could potentially be very embarrassing to a political figure, you send it to a newspaper. Why? Because they know how to handle it, and they will give it the broadest possible exposure. The State did not release these emails because they could not be authenticated. Which sounds like they did their job - they checked out the information they had, performed some basic investigative journalism, and then made a responsible editorial decision. Someone also called the paper and gave them a heads up that he had been seen on a flight to Argentina, which is presumably why they had a reporter waiting for him at the airport when he came back.

All of this works to newspapers' strengths - they have reporters ready to move at a moment's notice, they have writers and editors who understand the situation and can provide context quickly. Newspapers have always been highly invested in finding malfeasance and scandal. What's different today is that they can make money off of breaking news much faster than they could before. Which means that they have that much more incentive to break that news themselves.

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