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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

The Newsonomics of news anywhere

[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.]

Facebook isn’t trying to replace Gmail or Yahoo Mail — it’s just trying to bring a little order to our world, right? This week’s Facebook Messages announcement is stunningly simple, and in line with the next phase of the web, both overall and for news.

Take MSNBC’s description of Facebook Messages:

Instead of dealing with the dilemma of reaching people via e-mail or direct message or SMS, all of these will be combined, so that you’ll be able to reach someone the way they prefer to be reached, without you having to think about it. ‘All you need is a person and a message,’ said Andrew Bosworth, director of engineering for Facebook.

That’s the next web (r)evolution in a nutshell. It’s a unified theory of messaging. And it can be easily extended into the unified theories of TV, movies, shopping — and news.

Make a few substitutions, and you’ve got “All you need is a person and a movie,” or “All you need is a person and a shopping list” or “All you need is a person and the news.” For news creators, and aggregators, it’s a big thought that will be play out more dramatically in the tablet-inflected world of 2011. Only those who grok its meaning and execute properly may make digital reader revenue a reality.

In short, it’s about simplification, about interconnection, about consolidation, and it’s a principle that is beginning to — and should — form the foundation of the much of the next-generation thinking about the news business.

Though we’ll continue to see a panorama of new digital services and products, much of the early digital vision has been built out. We may live in a find-anything-anytime-anywhere world, but it’s also a digital fumbleathon, as we bounce from mobile apps of three distinct platforms, mail and preference settings, interminable demands for passwords, multiple hard-to-combine “friend” and contact lists, Twitter decks, Facebook walls, RSS feeds, preference popups, security hiccups — not to mention TV remotes and cable guides that seem like visitors from a distant analog planet.

Facebook Messages says: We get it. We’ll make it easier for you to keep in touch with those you want to stay in touch with. We’ll see how well Facebook delivers on that promise, but it’s the right one for our age. We can see its echoes multiplying.

On Wednesday, HBO announced that its HBO Go initiative will make HBO available through digital devices for its cable channels subscribers by year’s end. That initiative is part of parent Time Warner’s TV Everywhere push, which likewise says: You paid us once. Now get what you paid for wherever you want it. It’s the unification of the premium TV business, as cable companies are starting to see unprecedented churn, given piecemeal availability of programming through the Internet, legally or illegally.

Comcast is making a similar promise, as it newly announced app promises to connect up its customers’ experience. The app’s functionality is rolling out over time, but will ultimately allow viewing of all Comcast’s Xfinity content via devices, plus provide programming services, such as remote DVR taping, and let an iPhone replace that dreaded remote — borrowing a little bit from Tivo, a little bit from Sonos.

Netflix, of course, grasped the concept earlier, as CEO Reed Hastings has noted (“Six Lessons for the News Industry from Reed Hastings“): “We knew that the DVD business was temporary when we founded the company. That’s why we named it Netflix and not DVD by mail. We wanted to become Netflix.” Netflix’s current promise: “Unlimited TV.” You guessed it: one relationship with the brand, and you get what you paid for however you want it.

Where are the news promises? Well, the first generation has been Yahoo News. Remember your first time seeing all those wondrous headline links from the BBC, the Post, the Hindu, and CNET all in one place? First-generation aggregation was cool, but we haven’t really progressed much beyond it, though we’ve seen nuances, with personality added to aggregation (HuffPo) and some regional aggregation (Seattle Times, TBD.com). We’ve seen some good smartphone apps and a few new iPad apps. Come 2011, we’ll begin to see more News Everywhere experiences.

The first big one in the U.S. should be The New York Times. The Times will launch its metered pay system early in the year. If tech issues can be solved, expect paying customers to get access — aiming toward seamless, but likely with a few wrinkles — across devices, an intending-to-be-unified reader experience. The Times’ Martin Nisenholtz explained recently: “It’s not just about the website anymore. It’s about all of the brands where you can read the Times…it’s about the website, smartphones, the slates, iPad…it’s a hugely different world than it was five years ago.” So, the Times will say give us a single price, and we’ll let you read about you want of the Times where you want, recognizing you across digital experiences and — nirvana — allowing you to keep track of what you’ve shared and read, and with whom, without you having to recall whether you sent that story to your best buddy on your iPhone.

I’ve called that approach All-Access, and I think it’s the news industry version of TV Everywhere. So far, the best example of all-access pricing is the Financial Times, upon whose experience the Times’ model is built. Its “newspaper + online” top-of-the-line subscription allows full digital access plus the paper for one price.

The Everywhere notions seem friendly — and they have to be consumer friendly to be successful — but they’re actually quite darwinian. How many entertainment and news brands will we pay for? Only a handful, probably, especially at premium rates. So in the news business, that battle means only a few brands win the reader revenue sweepstakes, unless a Hulu-for-news proposition (AP’s digital rights clearinghouse expanded; a second life for Rupert Murdoch’s Alesia?) succeeds big-time.

To win, news companies will have work on the principle of the Field Theory. No, not the unified field theory, though unification of message and of service is fundamental. It’s the Sally Field Theory, which you remember the 1984 Oscars speech: “I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect…I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” Well who wants renewed respect than newsies? Who keeps talking about the trusted brand relationship that newspapers have long had with readers?

If news companies want to “own” the news customer (and be able to mine his data deeply), then they, large or small, newly minted or history-encrusted, have to bring their games to a new level. For the Times (or the Journal), the current breadth of content may be sufficient, if the execution manages to bring a little delight of ubiquity to paying subscribers.

For local news companies, the bar is probably a different one. Yes, they’ll have to put their tech development in high gear (many are woefully behind on tablet apps, just as the devices explode under this year’s Christmas trees), but they’ll also have to up their local value proposition. That means not just repurposing their own staff’s local news output, but really reaching out to community blog aggregation, broadcast partnership, working Yelp-like guide magic (probably through partnership) and/or creating a new level of digitally enhanced local shopping experiences. It’s unclear how much limited local news across devices is worth to news consumers.

News Anywhere, or unified news, or All-Access, whatever we want to call it, demands the singular focus, product development and messaging that Netflix, HBO, Comcast, and Facebook are bringing to it. Those are all skills that have been problematic in the news industry. Yet, here we are, in a new age, in a mobile news age about to unfold, giving the journalism, and journalists, another chance to get it right.

                                   
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