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Jan. 27, 2011, 11 a.m.

The Newsonomics of do-over

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

You remember do-overs from your childhood, right? On the playground, something went awry in a game, and you just called do-over: Reset the game, reset the clock. It’s one convenience of childhood that seldom makes it way into adult life. Yet that’s just what newspaper company owners are hoping to do in 2011. I thought of calling this post “The Newsonomics of inflection point,” but that seems too high-minded. Do-over is more apt to the emotions undergirding decision-making in early 2011.

Tuesday, in speaking to a group at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication, one graduate student heard my description of the paid-content landscape and asked a great, simple question: “I don’t understand why now, after news being free all these years, publishers now want to be paid for it. Why now?”

Indeed. Why now?

There are two reasons, I think. One’s economic, and it first got big, public voice at the Newspaper Association of America session in San Diego, two years ago this month. There Rupert Murdoch and Dean Singleton laid down the gauntlet: Google was stealing content, and readers needed to start paying. It was a public expression — pushed to the forefront by the deep recession — of what had become a private realization; the exchange rate of print ad dollars for digital ad dimes didn’t seem likely to change. Simply, there wasn’t — as far as the eye could see — enough money in digital advertising to sustain large news enterprises, long-term. The other reason is emotional: What we do is valuable, so people should pay for it — though as the grad student pointed out, most of the reader payment has gone to paper and distribution costs, not to feeding journalists.

If 2009 was a period of emotional as well as economic depression for those in the industry, 2010 was one of simmering hope, which the glimmer of tablet emergence stoked. Now, in 2011, we’ve got a convergence of factors beginning to create a new sense of where traditional news publishing may go. They may, collectively, provide an inflection point, a point at which the news industry sees itself differently and consumers are suddenly confronted by numerous paying choices. Together, these factors offer a newsonomics of do-over, the ability to unwind what many call the original sin of giving away news content for free, and creating a new business model for how news is distributed and paid for.

There are four factors that have pushed us to this point, in early 2011:

  • Tablets certify the mobile, news-anywhere era: Until recently, if you asked publishers what business they were in, they’d tell you the newspaper business — and online. It’s been a two-part business, anchored in print (still 85 percent of all revenues) and moving at glacial speed “online,” meaning desktop/laptop. The smartphone began to change that mindset, but hasn’t produced significant new revenue for news publishers, even though they’ve made efforts to create some smartphone products. It’s been the emergence of the tablet, with its promise of real new revenue, that certifies what I’ve called the News Anywhere model. Arthur Sulzberger’s outlining of that manifesto Sunday at the Digital Life Design conference in Munich is as good a statement of it as any: “Wherever people want us, we must be there. That’s our commitment to be there on the devices, including paper — paper’s fine — devices and paper for as long as people want.” Now all news publishers, some pushing forward at warp speed, others being pulled along, are moving into a true multi-platform world.
  • A metering system that says you can have your cake and eat it, too: It’s not a paywall, it’s a hurdle, says Journalism Online. Set the hurdle at 10 or 20 pageviews a month, and 80 percent or so of your visitors will never even see it. Capture half the rest of those frequent visitors, and you’re started a new digital reader stream. And, by the way, if you do it right, your digital ad revenue can keep on growing — that’s your own major hope for any ad growth at all — because your traffic won’t decrease by any more than 10 percent. In a nutshell, that’s The New York Times’ strategy, as well.
  • Apple’s push and shove: Unannounced, publishers are moving forward with what Apple has told them. Apple is pushing them to align their web access strategy with their tablet strategy, saying if you want to retain direct customer relationship and revenue, you can’t offer all this stuff for free on the desktop and just charge for the tablet. That’s the push, and the strategy is shoving publishers, both salivating for tablet revenue and afraid that the tablet will hasten print readership decline one way or the other, to align their access strategies, from print to desktop to smartphone to tablet. That’s all-access, and it’s coming to be the prevailing industry model.
  • The rise of public equity: PE owners, as evidenced by their rising influence at MediaNews, are now pushing their publishing enterprises to innovate faster, embrace mobile, and get busy with new revenue streams. The all-access, news-anywhere model is a natural for them as well, offering the potential of enough new money to build new companies of sustainable profitability — and that’s their only ticket to cash out by 2015.

Put it altogether, and the do-over looks eminently reasonable.

Yet it’s no slam dunk, and we’ve got to wonder how the theory will play out in practice. The tests are now coming fast and furious. The Wall Street Journal has switched to multi-platform, all-access pricing recently. The New York Times will do the same soon, adding its meter. News Corp.’s The Daily tests out consumer willingness to pay for a new, native news product, while Ongo seems to have stumbled out of the gate with an underwhelming presentation and too small — and haphazard — a list of initial news suppliers as it asks news consumers for $84 a year. The Dallas Morning News will lead U.S. metros into this new world. Journalism Online will power a good five to six dozen newspaper sites — most are metered, most getting ready for the tablet — by mid-year, as well.

Though it all makes good economic sense to the industry, some — how many? — consumers find work-arounds more appealing than publishers expect. As daily publishers have cut back and back, we’ve seen an explosion of new news content, from top-drawer regional startups to hundreds of native hyperlocals and Patches to great niche sports sites and more entertainment and lifestyle feature content (hello, Demand Media IPO!) than anyone can stomach. There’s lots of free news content still out there, and planning to be out there, from the Reuters and Washington Posts to the GlobalPosts and BBCs and U.S. public radio stations/websites. It will be fascinating to see how the non-paywall news suppliers organize themselves — consortiums are in discussion — to offer alternatives to this very do-over strategy.

POSTED     Jan. 27, 2011, 11 a.m.
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