How bobbleheads will save the American newspaper

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My post the other day about the Webcomic Achewood (it was actually about newspaper economics, but since most of its traffic seems to have come from a link that Chris Onstad put up on his site, I guess that makes it about Achewood), has been generating a steady stream of mostly fascinating comments. Here are a couple about how media enterprises can make money in the age of the Internets that I think deserve their own post (I have abridged both, though). First, Kirk Alexander:

One salient point that I almost never see made when this sort of discussion comes up is that the profit margins that large corporate interests pursue still exist, but they are spread out over wider areas and require more consumerism. For example, the record industry might sell fewer cds now (for whatever reason) but there is more cross-branding and cross-marketing than ever before, between music placement in ads, between toys, posters, t-shirts, bobbleheads – the number of marketable products associated with a popstar has been steadily escalating in the last few decades to the point where certain name brand stars have billion dollar industries only tangentially supported by the product that they are famous for, ie, Snoop might make more off his Girls Gone Wild videos and his energy drink and his yadda yadda than he does off of music. …

The same is potentially true for newspapers if they can find a way to be inventive. Achewood is a good example of this: the traditional cartoonist 15 years ago was paid by newspapers to license his cartoon, and that was the bulk of his salary. Achewood, however, is given away for free, but is subsidized by a large number of smaller industries underneath the achewood brand – t-shirts, cookbooks, shot glasses, etc. This is going to be harder for reporters, but I think good cartoonists will be able to survive just as much as they did before with some creative thinking and hard work.

My point is this: there are somethings that can be pirated and copied, and there are some that can’t. Food, housewares and clothes have to be bought while media can be copied and re-transmitted for free. The media enterprises that are adapting well are more and more often lowering their profits or eliminating sales entirely, and then making up the profit on physical items that have to be bought – e.g., a band giving away mp3s for free but making more profit because they increased their fanbase and more fans bought t-shirts, achewood giving the comics away for free but selling signed prints, etc.

A reader named Amy had this response:

Kirk Alexander brings up an excellent point: Onstad and his wife appear to make their living off of Achewood, despite the fact that there is no charge to view any of the comics, including the whole archive. Onstad generates and provides the content direct, free of charge. He and his wife provide products related to the “brand” they have created and again are directly responsible for delivery to customers.

The middleman, which to keep with the syndicated comics example has historically been newspapers and periodicals, is cut out.

There are direct interactions between the artist and his fans, and the result is a personalization of the product on a level that isn’t possible with something like Garfield.

There are non-comic equivalents, Craigslist, Amazon, and the like but the point remains:

Personalization is the future, and in the case of print-news, that’s going to be a problem. Although, I think it will be more of a problem for national rags than for local (once they get with it).

Andrew said something similar above: Local periodicals have to personalize their content to local interests.

Google tries everyday to figure out what news I’d like to read and what ads I’d like to see, and bless its little heart, when it gets better at it, it’s going to be amazing (at its worst, it’s at least entertaining).

That said, I have to disagree with him on his last paragraph:

I don’t think cutting-edge, centrist reporting is going to save newspapers. There tends to be this idea floating around that if given an informed choice, people would go for the balanced, rhetoric-free examinations of news, and I just don’t think that’s the case.

Look at the readership of the most blatantly biased political “news” blogs. What are the highest rated news radio shows? CNN/Fox News shows?

It’s wall-to-wall pundits taking pejorative turns on the words “Democrat” and “Republican”…and actually not a whole lot else.

I don’t know that I buy the argument that national media struggle more with personalization than local media do. I mean, Achewood is national. Global even. National magazines have long focused on niches that wouldn’t be profitable on a local level. Beyond that, all I have to say is: Wanna buy a Time mug?