A Newspaper's Online Fairy Tale

The editors and writers of the Los Angeles Times could shut off the presses tomorrow and live off its website, media pundit Jeff Jarvis claims. But the numbers don't add up.

Jarvis, a former ink-stained wretch, calls it a historic moment. Perhaps it is for him, since the Entertainment Weekly founder has made a career out of guiding old media organizations into digital nirvana. To make his living, it helps if he can argue that there's a pot of gold at the end of the online rainbow.

So LA Times editor Russ Stanton's recent disclosure that the newspaper's website revenues covers its editorial overhead — print and online — makes a handy PowerPoint slide for Jarvis.

But Stanton's claim doesn't withstand casual scrutiny for anyone familiar with the economics of online-only publications. The LAT newsroom, even after considerable cuts, still houses 660 people. And yet, in December, according to the newpaper's own figures, its website only generated 120 million pageviews. At that rate, that's 2.2 million pageviews per employee per year. One Gawker Media blogger, in a much-cited example, did double that figure in a month.

And fishiest of all, Jarvis's scenario doesn't include any expense for actually selling those ads. Do Stanton and Jarvis think ads, online or off, get magically sold through the simple grandeur of the wordsmithing to which they're attached?

Perhaps the Tribune Co., the publisher of the Times, is phenomenally good at running its business, but I doubt that, since it recently filed for bankruptcy. More likely: Stanton is engaging in wishful accounting. And since Stanton's tale suits Jarvis's needs, he's reprinting it without applying a media critic's needed skepticism.