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The newsonomics of the missing link

Picture Pre-Tablet Man (or Woman). Let’s go back to the time before Palm Pilots, at the dawn of consumer digital civilization itself, a time of AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve. Hunched heavily by the analog world on his shoulders, Pre-Tablet Man has slowly begun to raise his head, through successive innovations of laptops (!), pocket-sized cellphones, smartphones, smarter phones and early e-readers. Now, as we enter Year 2 of the iPad era, it seems like our digital man is almost standing up straight. The digital world has moved from geek chic to consumer commonplace. Our digital devices have become on/off appliances, no manual necessary.

In this evolution, the iPad is so far our human pinnacle, though it will be followed by wonders to come. It also marks a signal change in digital usage, and especially in digital news consumption. I think of it as the likely missing link in the digital news evolution. It’s a link that, out of the blue — or maybe out of the darkness — has offered news companies, old and new, the unlikely (last?) chance to get a new sustainable business model.

We’re now approaching the second half of this highly transitional year, with its multiplying paid circulation tests, continuing print revenue declines, and greater re-focusing on digital ad sales. As we do, let’s look at the newsonomics of the tablet as the missing link. Let’s do that in light of what I think are the six major realities confronting news companies at mid-year.

1. Reality: Print is in permanent decline.

That’s what 21 consecutive quarters of decline (year over year) in U.S. newspaper print ad revenue tells us (“The newsonomics of oblivion“). Consumer magazine revenue has moved barely positive, but is still substantially below pre-recession levels. Print is there to be milked, as long as it can, in the digital transition. Fewer newspapers are being sold, and they are thinner and thinner.

The tablet link: The tablet is a print-like replacement for newspapers and magazines. Publishers privately report (and an increasing spate of reports from Instapaper to RJI to Yudu) that tablet readers read the tablet much more like the newspaper than the way they read news websites. Longer session times. Longer stories. Early morning and evening reading. Pre-tablet, publishers had no potential replacement. Yes, smartphones have been a great check-in short-form reader, but that’s more of a traditional online-like behavior. Now they’ve been given a gift by the technology gods.

Caveat: The tablet is print-like, but it’s not print. It’s a new medium, first inviting — and soon demanding — that publishers make use of its interactive, video-forward, and smooth-as-silk social sharing capabilities. If publishers persist in “going slow,” sticking with cheaper-to-produce replica tablet products, they’ll squander the tablet replacement-for-print opportunity, as new market entrants from the AOLs (including flag-in-the-local-sand Patch) to the Bay Citizens surpass them.

2. Reality: Online engagement is inadequate.

The tablet link: The tablet offers a way to re-engage readers, a corollary to the tablet’s replacement potential. The biggest problem for news publishers isn’t (a) that the digital ad world only produces pennies on the old ad dollar, (b) the low share of digital ad revenue they get, or (c) a changing cabal of digital startups from Yahoo to Google to Apple that are stealing their business. Their biggest problem is online engagement.

News producers work in a world of massive cost, funding well-paid newsrooms and all the legacy supports from advertising to finance to circulation. That investment made a lot of sense when readers really engaged with their products. Consider that in the heyday, your average newspaper would command 270 minutes (4.5 hours) of attention per household per month. Consider that online, the average engagement time is five to 15 minutes per month.

So, if early tablet reading patterns persist, publishers could find themselves on the road to re-engagement. The possibility: short-form, headline-and-blurb desktop/laptop reading may have been the news industry’s nuclear winter, with a greener spring on the horizon.

Caveat: It’s still way early to know whether more engaged reading patterns will last. I believe they largely will, but that publishers will soon find themselves fighting for engaged minutes with whatever successful aggregators emerge from new crowds of Flipboard, Pulse, Zite, Trove, Ongo, and News.me, just to name a few. Ventures like Next Issue Media address may address destination buying, but not product aggregation in ways that consumers have shown they love. Aggregation won Round One of the web, as individual publishers lost. We may be seeing history repeating.

3. Reality: Google juice is wearing thin.

The tablet link: The tablet is driven more by direct traffic, by apps, and by direct browsing than by search; early publishers results show a healthy majority of tablet news visitors coming direct, unlike the online experience. Search isn’t over, but it’s being pushed aside as the beginning and the center of our online news activity. Publishers never found Google juice all that nourishing; it provided lots of calories, but too little muscle tone in new direct revenue created.

Caveat: Again, this is early behavior. While Google juice may stay thin, Facebook and Twitter juice are getting tastier, and will, in part, replace Google as important referrer of potential new customer traffic.

4. Reality: The only big growth is digital.

The tablet link: The tablet may be the path to getting print-like ad revenues.

News publishers have one story to tell, and that’s what we hear in quarterly reports and increasingly infrequent interviews: the growth in digital ad sales. The New York Times touts that 24 percent of its ad revenue is now digital, with McClatchy and Gannett just below 20 percent. Journal Register CEO John Paton talks about the digtital EBITDA his company will be able to throw off by 2014. At the same time, digital ad growth isn’t coming close to making up for print ad decline at most companies.

With current high ad rates, approaching print ones, high national advertiser and ad agency focus, tablets may be a great ad platform, unlike online or smartphone.

Caveat: Newspapers current earn more than $500 a year in Sunday revenue from print subscribers. Can tablets, if they replace print, ever come near that number?

5. Reality: Digital circulation revenue essential is essential to a new sustainable business model.

The tablet link: Consumers appear willing to pay for some kinds of tablet content. Imagine the paid proposition today without the tablet. Selling online/print? That’s a tough proposition. Print/smartphone? Well, maybe. The tablet gives publishers a much better value proposition to offer readers. All Access — including tablets — may prove to be a winning proposition.

Caveat: Early paid experiments aren’t producing much digital circulation. Why? In part, the tablet-wow products are in their infancy, and engagement remains too low. If too few readers bump into the pay wall, even fewer will pay up.

6. Reality: The News Anywhere Era is becoming real.

The tablet link: The tablet is a part of this new News Anywhere expectation. Getting news wherever we are has moved from something cool to something expected overnight. News Anywhere has offered a new playing field and a new value propostion that publishers can offer readers. In the era in which Netflix, HBO, and Comcast offer Entertainment Anywhere, news publishers have been presented a model — an All Access model — that readers can easily grasp.

Caveat: Readers grasp the model — and have high expectations. That means news publishers must more quickly satisfy those News Anywhere habits, properly formatting for each device and understanding how consumers are using news differently on their iPhones, their iPads and on their desktops. Most are simply not yet prepared to take advantage of this revolution.

Image by Bryan Wright used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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