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

INMA Transformation of Media Summit: Bundling, or how and when to get readers to pay for content

It was early in the morning when John Paton, CEO of of the Journal Register Company, had a curious statement for the assembled audience at the INMA Transformation of Media Summit Thursday here in Cambridge.

“For god’s sake, stop listening to newspaper people,” Paton told the audience. The audience filled with newspaper people.

He went on to say “we” have had 15 years to figure out the Internet and “we’re no good at this, folks. We’re no good at all.” His solution? Listening to the digital folks, as well as the audience, to find solutions to help better connect with readers and jumpstart declining revenues.

Awkward in a room of news executives from the U.S. and around the globe? Perhaps. But the theme of the first day of the INMA conference (in which the Nieman Foundation had a small hosting hand) was based around the idea of “extracting new value from content,” and the talks were wide ranging in their discussions of experimentation with business models, monetizing existing content, and reaching out to new audiences. While the theme of day one was pulling new value out of content, the discussion seemed to come back frequently to the idea of bundled subscriptions, offering content across new platforms as a vehicle to gain an audience and potentially generate new revenue.

It’s something Paton is familiar with, telling the audience that the Journal Register’s digital revenue went from “negligible” less than a year ago to 11 percent of ad revenue in November. Paton credited it to developing new revenue streams online in areas like videos, expanding from 13 revenue streams to 60.

In one of the more lively (and funny) conversations of the day, media columnists Peter Kafka of All Things Digital, and David Carr of The New York Times, found themselves in the position of talking about their respective parent companies plans for paid content — the Times’ plan for a metered site next month and News Corp.’s iPad product, The Daily.

“The web is the problem, because we all jointly agreed — and there are exceptions in this room and elsewhere — that the price of our content is nothing,” Carr said.

While both NYTimes.com and WSJ.com have a future in paid content (and also, in the case of WSJ.com, a past), both Kafka and Carr said readers should still have a level of free access, be it metered or as “samples.” Carr said he believes the future is customized tiers of subscriptions, where readers can choose between a mix of mobile devices, print, news alerts, the web, and a super-reader level “where Frank Rich will come to your house and have coffee with you,” he joked.

Kafka suggested one way forward is similar to what All Things Digital does with its series of conferences and events, a type of access that goes beyond stories and an alternate revenue stream to subscriptions and advertising.

Speaking more strictly about online content, Klas Uden, vice president of circulation marketing for Dow Jones, said “it’s not just about charging for content, but providing valuable content and understand what consumer needs are.” Uden was a member of a panel on what works and doesn’t in paid content. Uden said some of the strength of The Wall Street Journal’s model came from combining print and digital subscriptions early on, which changed customer behavior to expect paying for content but also to receive content across different platforms. Now, as the Journal expands its mobile and tablet apps, Uden said 50 percent of Wall Street Journal’s digital revenue growth comes from new devices.

Andrée Gosselin O’Meara, director of business development for The Globe and Mail in Toronto, described a similar situation, as the Globe’s biggest areas of growth are in mobile apps. The Globe and Mail offers a Kindle edition, Kobobooks edition, Globe2go app, and traditional iPhone and iPad apps; in October they served 20.5 million pageviews across all mobile devices (14 percent of all digital page views). Within 24 months, they expect to have more pageviews on mobile than on the website, she said. Gosselin O’Meara said the idea of being “device agnostic” is the key to success in gaining new readers, and potentially, subscribers.

“If people want to read their newspaper on a very basic device like the e-reader in black and white with out any picture, let them,” she said. “Let the customer choose. Let them read you however they like.”

                                   
What to read next
Leonhardt
Caroline O'Donovan    April 23, 2014
“Is there a way to take some of the knowledge that people at The New York Times already have that ends up on the cutting room floor, and put it in front of readers?”