Two weeks ago, some colleagues and I attended a Frontline Club talk on apps, paywalls and the future of journalism (for a recap, see William Owen’s excellent post). I found the experience very interesting but also very frustrating. I should say up front that this post is deliberately provocative: I am heartsick at the state of the news industry (one I respect and value to no end) and I want to do something about it — or at least start a discussion that does.
Publishers are erecting paywalls all over the place — The Times last week, The New York Times next year — but to what end? By throwing their content behind paywalls, publishers are indulging themselves in a knee-jerk reaction that — I think — will decimate their market share and brand value, ultimately to fatal consequences.
Publishers should be rethinking digital as a universe of potential profit. They should be embracing change and changing with it, but instead they’re freaking out and locking up the content. This just won’t work.
The internet has irrevocably — and nearly globally — democratised information. Content as content is free, and content producers cannot ask consumers to change their behaviour or expectations to meet a bottom line. That’s just not how it works. There is so much good content out there, people will simply decline to pay and move on to a free content source — and there are many.
In order to survive, publishers must change the way they approach the business of content, newspapers, and digital news platforms. Here are my three predictions for the industry.
Prediction 1: Content must become a service
Publishers are in the business of content, but that content must be sold as a service. Crazy newfangled idea, you say? Not really. News publishers once offered an amazing service — the newspaper. This lightweight, portable, affordable, disposable device brought together a world full of information and opinion and presented it to the customer in clean, relatively error-free prose.
This once-exceptional service is now relatively obsolete. Sure, there are legacy customers and habit-driven customers and only-when-I-fly customers out there, but once the coming generation of (I’m sorry) digital natives tips the consumer balance, that’s it for the ‘broadsheet as standard-bearer for news media’ era.
It follows that to survive, publishers must craft a new service that people like you and me didn’t know we needed, but will pay for and love and advocate (i.e. the newspaper subscription as an adult rite of passage). This can happen, and it must happen if news media is going to survive — which it *must*. Who can imagine a world without the Fourth Estate?
William mentions in his post that a lot of publishers still think that a newspaper’s competition is other newspapers. This is *so* narrow-minded. It’s also horrifically limiting to the industry’s potential.
A newspaper’s competition isn’t another dying dinosaur — it’s a new creature altogether: a news service that provides all the content I want, in the way I want, and thus eliminates my need for the newspaper.
This service could do so much — just for starters:
- Pull together all the content out there, including the publication’s own, and present it in the context of a larger societal debate, maybe featuring the columnists and commentators I love
- Capitalise on the glut of (free, quality) content out there and offers me a handpicked list of suggestions — this would save me time and connect me to content and conversations I didn’t know about, but will love
- Facilitate real-time dialogue about what I want to see covered
- Build a service around archives so when I pay to view or download a back issue or old article, I get a time-capsule of information that gives me real perspective on that moment — photos, a soundtrack, data visualizations, top stories that day, socioeconomic data, and so on
- Geo-locate content as it’s published, and feature live blogging or moderated debates with subject experts in a way I’ve never seen before
Whatever this service is, it must make my life easier and more enjoyable. It must save me time, anticipate my needs and astonish me with its ability to exceed them. That is the competition for newspapers. Not a paywall or a single app, but a content service that demonstrates what a faff and waiting game the content buffet has become.
Prediction 2: Platform agnostics are making a big mistake
At the Frontline event, Marybeth Christie, the FT’s product manager, said that “we charge for our content, not the way you get it”. A lot of publications are platform-agnostic — The New Yorker has just announced intentions to go that way.
My issue with platform agnosticism is that in assuming customers are paying for content versus the way they access that content, publishers ignore context. They place a zero value on the time and energy spent accessing content — and whose time is worth nothing?
Mobile, iPad and whatever other platforms demand a tailored content service. If I’m accessing a news publication with my mobile, it’s a safe bet that I’m not in front of my computer. I have a smaller screen, a smaller keyboard and probably less time to browse. My experience should be markedly different than it would be on my computer or on an iPad, and if the service is good enough, I should be — and am — willing to pay for that difference (especially if it is easy to pay).
Several magazines are taking the nod here — newspaper publishers should too.
Just as publishers should charge for apps and content services tailored to different devices, they shouldn’t charge for basic online content.
I predict that online (specifically standard browser access) will become the main or base-level means of content consumption, with revenue-earning services (including print) as add-ons. If a user is going to work through a website on a ‘traditional’ browser, they should be able to do it for free (with plenty of ad exposure as they go). All content need not be available on all platforms.
Newspaper Club is one example of a publisher turning print into a service; other online news services like Korea’s OhMyNews — which, granted, has a completely different content model to most — have made money off a less-frequent, more targeted print edition that adds to the digital experience rather than competing with it (and losing). Coming at it from the other side, Vanity Fair is the rare print publication that has made money in the last few years, and features a — free — website that adds to the print experience.
Prediction 3: The way people consume content will continue to dictate the way it is sold
My own browsing behaviour when I am in ‘online information search’ mode — and I don’t think I’m alone here — is sort of like a bee on the hunt for nectar. I’m all over the place. First I want to read this, then the article is a bit slow to start so I move to another story on the same event, but on a different site, then I notice a sidebar and read that, then I think of something else I wanted to read, then I’m off to a blog, etc etc. When publishers start denying me the right to sniff their flowers, I’m out of there and on to the next plant.
Coming up against a paywall doesn’t gel with my expectation of how my online experience should go. It is is, in every sense, arresting. The Times paywall will deny access to a lot of fly-by bees, and I don’t think those bees will come back.
It’s not about the content anymore. As new information consumption devices come to market, publishers must adapt with new platforms and services — and they must make sure the people designing those platforms and services understand the whole picture.
Paywalls are a clear demonstration of misplaced decision-making in service design: you just *know* the people building them (Mr. Murdoch et al) are card-carrying members of the content-trumps-all camp. They don’t appreciate the increasingly central role digital services are going to play in our lives. This is a mistake they can’t afford to make.
It’s going to take some brave, disruptive, awesome thinking to transform the news industry into a valuable part of our shared future. Folks, it’s time to up your game.
All photos from the US Library of Congress courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons