Bob Benz knows both sides of the newspaper industry. He spent a decade working in many print newsrooms before launching the Rocky Mountain News Online in 1995. Today, he is general manager of interactive media for the 21 newspapers of the E.W. Scripps Company.
Benz believes many newspaper sites are in pretty good shape, and getting better all the time.
"Online papers have created more audience than you seem to give them credit for (though it's an audience that is behaving differently than we might have expected), and the business model is much more than sleight of hand in the accounting department," he said.
"Online newspapers, however, are largely dependent on the print product. Without a doubt. I'm seeing this as something of an evolutionary process. The industry tried the silo approach. Then many groups, including Scripps, decided that it made a lot more sense to hitch a fledgling business to the existing one. It certainly is more cost-effective. And the two endeavors have much in common."
"I think this has been tremendously successful. The result is a stable business that isn't hemorrhaging money and complements our print business," Benz said. "Also, print folks are less likely to look at online as a competitor or usurper. It's part of their business, just like direct mail, commercial printing and Spanish-language publications. I'm amazed at how much buy-in we have among our publishers, ad directors and editors these days.
"In short, I'm astounded by how much we've accomplished since the mid-'90s."
Benz said the online news business must continue to evolve. "I've told my bosses that our more than 30 percent annual revenue growth for the past few years will slowly erode down to something more akin to the revenue growth print products are seeing if we don't start branching out from this base we've created. The same is true of our audience growth.
"One of our major initiatives will be to examine the potential of targeted marketing. When I made this pitch to my bosses, they saw it immediately and agreed."
Will online editions soon succeed or buttress the declining readerships of newsprint editions?
"I'm not saying I don't have concerns. These issues keep me up at night," Benz said. "But I think on many fronts we are moving in the right direction. I'm not sure I ever expected online editions to succeed print. They are a complementary business."
"When you get right down to it, I'd still much sooner read a Sunday print edition than boot my computer while I'm eating my Atkins-friendly breakfast," he joked. "But there are other functions -- searching classifieds, getting breaking news -- that have made the online version of our newspapers a critical part of my information-gathering process.
Benz said that it's time for the industry to learn from online users themselves.
"Instead of building content based on what we want people to like on the Internet, maybe we should start looking at what it is they want on the Internet. How are they using it? What do they need? How do we truly complement our print product?
"Then we can start looking at new products that address new or eroding niches."