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I recently attended an ICA debate called Paywalls, Ebooks and the Death of Print. It wasn’t so much a debate about whether print was dying, but a discussion about how the institution of news could be saved, and who should save it.
The usual suspects here are industry, technology and philanthropy. But on this occasion, panelist André Schiffrin brought another contender to the table: government. Whoah now. Government?
Observer writer Peter Preston claims that according to new research, there is no clear correlation between a rise in internet traffic and a fall in newspaper circulation:
The issue is not one of total audience, but of frequency and loyalty – and online, as in print, newspapers are great at attracting readers from time to time, but they don't attract them often enough, and they don't hang around.
Preston offers a breath of fresh air on the topic, but what is most interesting for me is the feedback his article generates. Check out the comments, which aren't just from Brits but from people around the world who wouldn't necessarily able to access this content without the web. So there are a couple arguments here: one, that the internet isn't the cause of print's shrinking audience, and two, that the internet is creating a new audience for content.
Worth a read.
Martin Belam, an information architect at the Guardian, writes about the history of the traditional layout of newspapers and how that is set to change with more people now reading newspapers on their mobiles, and also on their iPads.
As he says:
In order to serve a wide range of devices, with differing screensizes and aspect ratios, rather than starting from scratch with a unique app and codebase each time, publishers will most likely ultimately have to develop "one-size-adapts-to-all" systems, relying on open standards like HTML5 and CSS3 to deliver content. And as well as new technologies, a reappraisal of design principles is going to be required.
He suggests that stripping down to the bare basics the way apps like Instapaper do is what newspaper publishers on the web will eventually return to, but before that they have to decide what the main aim of their content is: do they want the reader to share content, comment on it or dive deep into it?
I'm not so sure that it has to be either/or. There aren't many examples which display news on the web without making the reader feel like they are in the middle of a veritable war between different widgets for their attention, but surely we will get there.
BoingBoing has a good analysis of what the best and worst cases could be, based on News International's highly selective stats:
In the best case the Times got 100,000 people to sign up for an ongoing, monthly subscription. In the worst case, 80,000 people paid £1 for a month's access and never re-upped; 10,000 people bought a single article and never came back, 9,000 people paid for the Android/iPhone app and stopped using it after the first day, and 1,000 people bought monthly subscriptions.
The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones reports from behind The Times' paywall. He says:
Times Newspapers says 105,000 customers have paid to visit the Times and Sunday Times websites since the paywall went up four months ago, while another 100,000 have a subscription to read the papers online as well as in print.
But this is difficult to draw any conclusions from. In the worst case scenario, the 105,000 people who have paid could all have only paid once, so it actually is a total number of customers who have ever paid, rather than a measure of the actual audience.
Although Cellan-Jones tries to do so, it's therefore meaningless to extrapolate from the 105,000 users to an aggregate revenue, given that we don't know whether we are talking about returning customers or one-off purchases.
The 100,000 are given online access automatically as part of their subscription to the newspaper, so again it's hard to draw any conclusions about how many new paying customers The Times have added since the paywall went up.
Obviously, the management of News International are going to present the most favourable numbers they can, so until they show us hard data, one can only assume that the picture is considerably worse than the one they would like to paint.
It could still be swings and roundabouts as far as Times Online's readership goes: the figures reported by Neilsen show that reader numbers are significantly down, but there is a small increase in % of affluent readers and those from 'Urban Prosperity' households.
As The Times openly stated that they'd rather have fewer, more affluent readers, it's possibly a bit early to call #fail on this one. What happens with advertisers is going to be the real indicator of whether the paywall has been a success or not.
In a bid to keep its commercial allies close, The Times is calling on advertisers to boost digital innovation, in what I think is an evolutionary move to offset ad revenues lost from the web and redirect them to the tablet, in the face of declining reader numbers. If the Times paywall claims more engaged, affluent readers then the case to advertisers is no doubt stronger for the Times iPad app which offers a premium-luxe, targeted experience.
I visited the Barbican yesterday with no set plans and stumbled upon Damián Ortega's exhibition inside the The Curve.
"For 31 days Ortega has set himself the challenge of creating a new sculpture over 24 hours. Each sculpture will be inspired by an item culled from the newspaper of that day: whether a news story, a photograph, or a graphic."