Ten Good Reasons To Buy: The Newspaper Edition
from the it-works dept
So, with the New York Times going metered and rejecting a proposed membership model that would have been much more CwF+RtB-ish, I thought it might be worth looking at Mike’s list from the perspective of newspaper publishing. Though some of the ideas are more suited to musicians, it still qualifies as Ten Good Reasons to Buy.
(It should be stated from the outset that I believe advertising will continue to be the primary source of revenue for newspapers, and that I think paywalls and meters are doomed to fail. See my recent post here on Techdirt and my extensive ramblings on good.is for more on why. That being said, if newspapers use CwF+RtB in truly innovative ways, they might just turn the whole industry on its head. Stranger things have happened.)
“1. Access: Access to the actual content creators is a real scarcity and one that can often be used to make money in ways that make fans quite happy.”
Sometimes newspapers do this backwards. When fundraisers and events and the like seek media sponsors, newspapers will request a hosting spot for one of their writers or editors as a condition for the sponsorship. In other words, the content creators buy access to the fans.
This isn't always how it goes though – it depends on the event in question and the profile of the staff. In some cases the newspaper seeks sponsorship for their talent, and throws in event appearances and panel discussions to sweeten the deal. But in all cases, the main purpose of the whole shebang is to sell more subscriptions.
There might be a lot more opportunities here. Why just panels and events? What about workshops, custom reports and analysis, even one-on-one attention? The thing to remember here is that the fans in question, or at least the most profitable ones, are business fans. Businesspeople read newspapers because the information and expertise has direct and immediate value to them. Connect finance writers with traders, legal writers with law firms, tech writers with software developers – with some creativity, there could be money to be made.
I can think of some ideas outside the business sphere too, but I have gone on for too long already and I'm only on Reason #1.
“2. Attention: One of the most important scarcities in the digital age. Attention is incredibly scarce, and if you've got it, you can do a lot with it.”
This one is simple: active, vibrant comment sections where writers, columnists and editors regularly participate. Many newspapers see some of the trash that inevitably turns up in every comment section and go sour on the whole affair, allowing their columnists to shutter their comments when they should be requiring them (and paying them if necessary) to get involved. They will quickly realize that online communities become self-moderating once rational, intelligent debate is established and readers know they have the writers’ attention.
So far this isn't a reason to buy – at least not for the readers themselves. Advertisers are another story. An engaged community of readers is worth a lot more than the impressions they bring to a website – savvy advertisers will want their ideas, not just their eyes. See Techdirt's IT Innovation blog for a prime example of this.
“3. Authenticity: This one also includes ‘trust.’ The ability to be authentic carries tremendous weight and is quite scarce at times. But if you can provide something that is authentic and valuable, it's often a very strong reason to buy.”
Authenticity is what everyone already touts as the strength of newspapers and the reason that people will consent to pay for their content. But newspapers are far from perfect, and in a world where transparency is becoming as important as trust, their reticence about sources and methods is starting to seem old-fashioned. If newspapers continue to resist the linking culture, and continue to leave out details that could easily be added in appendices and footnotes online where space is unlimited, they risk being left behind. Moreover, if big names leak too much talent to more innovative startups, they could quickly lose authenticity (and surely someone will say they've jumped the shark.)
So I guess what I’m saying is: yes, without authenticity none of these other RtBs matter in the slightest – so don’t go sacrificing it now.
“4. Exclusivity: Many people value having something that very few (or perhaps no) others have.”
This is essentially what has allowed the WSJ paywall to succeed where so many others have failed. At the business level, and especially in finance, exclusive information has significant value, and the paywall created a certain sense of exclusivity. Ultimately the flimsiness of that exclusivity could be what brings it down – but what about something truly exclusive? Custom news aggregators for businesses have been showing some success – what about exclusive news aggregators managed by a team of the newspaper's respected editors? That's just one idea of many.
Outside the business world this is a tougher nut to crack. Financial news gets more valuable with exclusivity, but most news is the opposite: a big portion of its value comes from sharing it. Nonetheless, there may be certain forms of exclusivity that avid readers will pay for. It will come down to individual newspapers knowing their strengths and their audiences, and seeing ways to offer them something they want. If anyone has any creative ideas, I'd love to hear them.
“5. (New) Creation: The ability to create something new is a scarcity. This often confuses people, because a digital good once created is no longer scarce -- but the ability to create it is still very much a scarcity.”
Most newspapers understand that gathering information and creating content is what they do, so there's not much to say here. Newspapers that are drastically cutting back reporting staff and ramping up the wire content should remember that, while distributed reporting makes a lot of sense in many situations, every publication needs to continue creating something new that has value, or all is lost.
“6. Tangibility: The granddad of scarcities: physical products.”
News on paper is the core physical product at the moment, but that’s not going to be around forever. I suspect that some newspapers will transform into news magazines, since the market for glossy, full-colour formats with good photography and long-form journalism will likely outlive the market for cheap newsprint broadsheets. A nice physical product has always been important to magazines, and people are willing to pay for it; newspapers are designed to be as cheap and disposable as possible, which is why the internet renders them obsolete. This shift to a magazine format might actually make sense for some newspapers, if they can establish a role for themselves as what Devin Coldewey calls the delayed media.
All that being said, the money from selling the physical product has never carried the weight of newspapers or magazines, and it’s certainly not going to start now.
In terms of other physical products, I don’t see any reason why newspapers couldn't sell more merchandise, though I’m not sure how to go about it in a way that would bring in significant revenue. Lots of newspapers sell things like photo prints and keepsake copies, but so far it hasn’t proven to be that lucrative. On the other hand, those initiatives are often old and mechanical, and some may not have had fresh marketing treatment in years – who knows what they might be overlooking?
And if all else fails, the New York Times can just become an authorized Apple retailer.
“7. Time (saving or making): People will pay if you can save them time (or give them extra time in some manner).”
Time is especially valuable in business. As far as saving time goes, there might be a market for rapid fact-sheets and summarized reports that supplement the newspaper’s core editorial. Though difficult to sell by themselves, if combined with some level of exclusivity this could be a great revenue stream: customized reports, similar to the aggregator model I mentioned earlier. Some business publications do sell reports, but more often than not these are of the annual reference tome variety, a format that today is about as useful as a phone book. If there is money to be made, it will come from more rapid and direct business services.
“8. Convenience: If you make things more convenient, many people will buy, even if free options are available. That's one reason why iTunes has done so well.”
This is what a lot of people in the industry are banking on with the iPad and other tablets, but if they seriously believe the iTunes store will work for newspapers just like it does for music and movies, they are in for a rude awakening. Apple is selling music to people who are used to paying much more for CDs, and they still face stiff competition and had to remove DRM to satisfy their customers. Newspapers have an audience that is accustomed to getting the news for free, sharing it openly on social networks, blogging about it, linking to it and generally enjoying it without restriction. Moreover, while the digital alternatives to iTunes for music and movies are torrents or peer-to-peer programs, the alternatives to iTunes for newspapers will be countless news websites that are equally convenient and which stay free to soak up all the advertising revenue. Very few people, if any, are loyal to a newspaper the way legions of fans are loyal to a favourite recording artist. Convenience is still an important part of delivering the news, but that’s because readers already expect it.
It should be noted separately that the concept of Convenience also ties in with the custom business services I propose under Time and Exclusivity.
“9. Belonging: Never underestimate just how important a sense of belonging to a group or a tribe is – and being able to provide that in an authentic manner can be a true scarcity.”
A sense of belonging stems from the attention I discussed earlier. I talked a lot about comment sections, but those aren't the only form of audience engagement: Twitter is an extremely valuable tool, and I've often wondered if good old fashioned forums might have some potential on news websites.
But I think the real goldmine could be participatory journalism: there are a lot of citizens out there who want to get involved in the reporting process, and the concept is gaining steam, with YouTube and CNN getting on board, among others. So, why aren't there more people out there training citizen journalists? I bet newspapers, especially at the community level, would have an easy time finding groups and clubs that would pay for reporting workshops and seminars. Or they could try something like the PPF Group in the Czech Republic: opening hyperlocal newspaper-cafés where editorial staff will interact with the public (and partnering with Google in the process.)
And yes, I know that's an NYT link. It's ironic on two levels.
“10. Patronage: Definitely depends on the situation, but there are some people who just want to support an artist, no matter what. And that presents a scarcity.”
Out of curiosity I searched “newspaper patronage”, and I found this highly amusing editorial in an 1878 edition of a New Brunswick newspaper from the Google News archives (don't you just hate the way Google is destroying our culture?).
Several comic caricatures of different types of newspaper patrons follow, and then:
“Now isn't newspaper patronage a curious thing? And in that great day when the gentleman in black gets his dues, as he surely will, how many of the patrons enumerated above will fall to his share? Now it will be seen that while certain kinds of patronage are the very life and existence of a newspaper, there are other kinds of patronage that are more destructive than deadly night shade.”
I suspect the same will prove true today.