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Nov. 4, 2010, 10 a.m.

The Newsonomics of Kindle Singles

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Maybe the newspaper is like the old LP — you know, as in “Long Play.” It may be a 33 1/3, though it seems like it came out of the age of 78s sometimes, a relic of the post-Victorian Victrola age. It is what it is, a wonderful compendium of one day in the life (of a nation, a city, a village), a one-size-fits-all product, the same singular product delivered to mass volumes of readers.

In the short history of Internet disintermediation and disruption of the traditional news business, we’ve heard endless debate of the “the content and the container,” as people have tried to peel back the difference between the physical form of the newspaper — its container — and what it had in it. It’s a been a tough mindset change, and the many disruptors of the world — the Googles, the Newsers, and the Huffington Posts, for instance — have expertly picked apart the confusions and the potentials new technologies have made possible. The news business has been atomized, not by Large Hadron Colliders, but by simple digital technology that has blown up the container and treats each article as a digestible unit. Aggregate those digestible units with some scheme that makes sense to readers (Google: news search; Newser: smart selection and précis; HuffPo: aggregation, personality and passion), and you’ve got a new business, and one with a very low cost basis.

None of this is a revelation. What is new, and why I re-think that context is the advent of Kindle Singles. The Lab covered Amazon’s announcement of less-than-a-book, more-than-as-story Kindle Singles out of the chute a couple of weeks ago. Josh Benton described how the new form could well serve as a new package, a new container, for longer, high-quality investigative pieces, those now being well produced in quantity by ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting (and its California Watch), and the Center for Public Integrity. That’s a great potential usage, I think.

In fact, Kindle Singles may open the door even further to wider news business application, for news companies — old and new, publicly funded and profit-seeking, text-based and video-oriented. It takes the old 78s and 33 1/3s, and opens a world of 45s, mixes, and infinite remixes. It says: You know what a book is, right? Think again. It can also say: You know what a newspaper is, right? Think again. While the Kindle Singles notion itself seems to have its limits — it’s text and fixed in time, not updatable on the fly — it springs loose the wider idea of publishing all kinds of new news and newsy content in new containers. Amazon is trying to define this strange new middle, with the Kindle Singles nomenclature, while some have used the term “chapbook” to describe it. We’ve got to wonder what Apple is thinking in response — what’s an app in Kindle Singles world? What’s a Kindle Single in an apps world? It’s not a book, an article, a newspaper, or a magazine, but something new. We now get to define that something new, both in name, but most importantly in content possibility.

What it may be for news organizations is a variety of news-on-demand. Today, we could be reading tailored and segmented sections on the election, from red and blue perspectives, from historical perspectives, from numerical perspectives. Today, we in the Bay Area could get not just a single triumphant San Francisco Giants celebratory section, but our choice of several, one providing San Francisco Giants history, one providing New York Giants history, one looking at the players themselves; the list goes on and on. More mundane, and more evergreen commercial topics? Job-hunting, job-finding, job-prep guides, tailored to skills, ages, and wants? Neighborhood profile sections for those seeking new housing (pick one or several neighborhoods, some with data, some with resident views, others tapping into neighborhood blogs). It’s endless special sections, on demand, some ad-supported, some not; a marketer’s dream. Some are priced high; some are priced low; some are free and become great lead generators for other digital reader products.

A few recent initiatives in the news business news lend themselves to Singles thinking. Take Politico’s newly announced topical e-newsletters. Take Rupert Murdoch’s notion of a paid-content portal, Alesia, which had within the idea of mixing and matching content differently, until its plug was recently pulled. Take AP’s new rights consortium, a venture that could build on this approach. Again, endless permutations are possible.

Who is going to come up with the ideas for the content? Well, editors themselves should have their shot, though one-size-fits-all thinking has circumscribed the imagination of too many. Still, there are hundreds of editors (and reporters and designers and copy editors) still in traditional ranks and now employed outside of it capable of creating new audience-pleasing packages. Some will work; some won’t. Experiment, and fail quickly. The biggest potential, though? Letting readers take open-sourced news content and create packages themselves, giving them a small revenue share, on sales. (Both the Guardian and the New York Times, among others, have opened themselves up for such potential usage.) Tapping audiences to serve audiences, to mix and match content, makes a lot of sense.

Why might this work when various little experiments have failed to produce much revenue for news companies, thinking of Scribd and HP’s MagCloud? Well, it’s the installed bases and paid-content channels established by the Amazons (and the Apples). They’ve got the customers and the credit cards, and they’ve tapped the willingness to pay. They need stuff to sell.

For newspaper companies, it’s another chance to rewrite the economics of the business. The newsonomics of Kindle Singles may mean that publishers can worry less about cost of content production, for a minute, and more about its supply. Maybe the problem hasn’t been the cost of professional content, but its old-school one-size-fits-all distribution package. That sports story or neighborhood profile could bring in lots more money per unit, if Singles notion takes off.

One big caution here: Singles thinking leads us into a more Darwinian world than ever. In my Newsonomics book, I chose as Law #1: “In the age of Darwinian content, we’re becoming our own and each other’s editors.” Great, useful content will sell; mediocre content will die faster. Repackaging content pushes the new content meritocracy to greater heights. As we approach 2011, news publishers are hoping to hit home runs with new paid content models. Maybe the future is as much small ball, hitting a lot of one-base hits, of striking out as often — and of Singles.

POSTED     Nov. 4, 2010, 10 a.m.
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