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Nov. 6, 2013, 11:11 a.m.

The newsonomics of the shopping of Press+ and the coming of Paywalls 2.0

The largest paywall provider in the United States is up for sale. What does the future hold as paywalls grow beyond being all-the-content firehoses?

In April 2009, when Journalism Online began operations, its business — providing the backend for websites offering different kinds of paywalls — was largely derided. Two years later, when the company — having largely assumed the name of its main product, Press+ — was sold to printer RR Donnelley, observers noted that the $45 million (or so) payout seemed rich for a company with a couple of dozen clients.

pressplusToday, Press+ — with about 450 clients and 200 more contracted and in the pipeline for set-up — is again on the market, I’ve learned. A number of companies have heard the pitch, and prospective buyers are going through their due diligence.

Among the key questions: Would a buyer get a services company, a tech company, or a data company? The 40-person Press+ unit of RR Donnelley is a mix of the three at this point, and a new owner would have to decide which to emphasize going forward. It’s also a profoundly U.S-centric company at this point, with about only five percent of its 450 active clients found outside the United States.

How much will it go for, and to whom — and what does its selling tell us about the future of paid digital content — not just in the U.S., but globally?

Cofounders Gordon Crovitz, the one-time Wall Street Journal publisher, and Steve Brill, serial entrepreneur and journalist, declined comment on the shopping of the company. I’ve talked to both over the years, though, and the company’s path, its challenges, and its opportunities are quite clear. In fact, the potential growth of paid digital content sales is one we should all be focused on. Whether those sales come through Press+ or elsewhere, we’re clearly on the cusp of a new understanding of consumers’ willingness to pay for digital news and feature products.

I’ve come to call this new emerging era Paywalls 2.0, built on the lessons of Paywalls 1.0, the last four years’ foundation built largely on The New York Times’ pioneering general news pay model and the work of Press+.

First, a basic question. Why is RR Donnelley selling?

Donnelley bought Press+ and several other companies, including ereader Libre Digital, in a burst. The old printing and packaging company needed to expand its footprint from legacy businesses and to demonstrate to investors that it was getting in tune with digital times. Motley Fool described it this summer as a high-dividend-paying “buggy whip” stock, even though it has managed recent small growth. Check out the Donnelley website, and you see lots of stuff on “end-to-end” publishing solutions. Its “Custom Point Solutions Group” encompasses some of these new solutions, emphasizing the company’s move beyond printing to “integrated communications management.” Donnelley is a $10-billion-plus company in revenues, and while the plus part of Press+ may have seemed attractive, the business is but a freckle on its balance sheet.

Though the Donnelley acquisition looked like it might offer a new B2B market for Press+, it’s now clear that Press+ managed to grow largely within its original market: news publishers. Eighty percent of Press+ clients are newspapers, and many of the rest are news-oriented online-only or newsletter companies. The Donnelley acquisition, as is often the case, didn’t provide the kind of synergies we hear about when such deals are announced. It may have been an odd fit in any case. And now Donnelley is moving on.

For the global news industry, approaching 2014, the question of this reader revenue revolution is intertwined with making sense of Press+’s potential. By mid 2014, well over 650 daily newspapers worldwide will have restricted digital news access. The majority of those are in the U.S., but systems are rapidly being deployed across northern and central Europe, as well as in Japan and Australia. What was a short time ago experimental is becoming an article of faith. Where we recently wondered whether the “information wants to be free” fantasy had become a reality, we now know that some consumers — given higher-quality news, or TV, or music, or movie content — will pay for it. Where circulation revenue was once flat, it is now going up 5-6 percent annually in the U.S. because of paywall-inspired and -abetted aggressive pricing.

Just as important: We now know that ad revenue struggling to find any growth. Add it all up and reader revenue — increasingly, digitally oriented reader revenue — becomes the most important and for many (“The newsonomics of majority reader revenue”) their leading way to pay journalists and eke out profit.

This new era will find its legs as we answer four questions:

  • If, in fact, subscribers will pay for all-access and digital access, what else might these digital subscribers — increasingly positioned as members — pay for?
  • What if publishers apply price-discrimination models for digital and all-access, in ways that hundreds of dailies have long done with print pricing? In short, charge different households different prices based on their buying history, demographics, and location, maximizing yield per subscriber. Matt Lindsay, whose Mather Economics is the go-to pricing consultant for U.S. dailies, identifies digital price discrimination as a top trend for 2014.
  • If the market for all-the-content firehose digital subscriptions is getting saturated (a notion supported by the plateauing of The New York Times’ first offer and other similar learnings), then what kinds of niche paid products might non-newspaper loyalists — including those under 35 — pay for?
  • Will there be a paid news content network, enabling publishers to sell other publishers’ paid content? Whether it’s a Press+ network, a Washington Post/Amazon network, or a Flipboard network, there will be efforts to create a Netflix for news.

I’ve written about “selling more stuff” as a signal trend for the next year. The New York Times is the most public about its niche digital product plans, and we’ve seen 2013 niche tests from the Chicago Tribune, Politico, Germany’s Bild, and The Times of London, among others. In addition, a number of large publishers tell me privately they are readying their own paid digital niche products. Sports, which Press+ has identified as an area of strong interest among a third of Press+-mediated subscribers, poses a lot of potential. So do travel, health, technology, and family.

Which brings us back to one of Press+’s strengths: data. Its current pitch to would-be buyers is heavily based on knowledge and analytics.

It’s good to be at the top of a healthy food chain, and that’s where Press+ is now perched. It is dropping billions of cookies on Press+-mediated content. While each publisher gets its own data, Press+ gets it all. Out of that, you get one of the major selling points Press+ uses with its clients: “We’ll share best practices with you.” Press+ has measured the differential between its highest- and lowest-performing sites at 10-to-1, and that would be an impressive difference-maker in revenue return. Get the metering, marketing, messaging, and more right, Press+ says, and you’ll more than make up the revenue share (~20 percent) you pay us.

That may be Press+’s best value in the marketplace. Data and analytics (“The newsonomics of “Little Data,” data scientists, and conversion specialists”) is the foundation of the new digital business. Press+ has a fair amount, but what it has may be more valuable to acquirers that have far more, and want to add consumer buying habit data to ad-related and other data collections. While it has just learned over the past year that is a “data company,” that personality seems most appealing on today’s market. It’s a services company, getting decent to good marks from its clients, though some have chafed about its limitations. It’s less of a tech company, those who’ve looked under its hood believe; they say its technologies, though smartly assembled, break little new ground.

So would a media company buy Press+, or would an e-commerce company make more sense? How about an agency looking to move beyond traditional agency bounds? For current Press+ clients, a sale may post a competitive question. If a competitive media company buys Press+, how comfortable will clients be with having their precious data used against them? One of the reasons Google never got much traction with its Checkout/OnePass e-commerce alternative to Press+ was publisher concern about data.

At the same time, given both the growing appetite for niche digital news/feature commerce and the complexity that it may require, Press+ will need investment to keep its lengthy lead against its own competition, a competition now splintered among Europe-based companies (Piano Media, Cleeng, MediaPass) as well as Tinypass in the U.S. A buyer could supply that in ways that Donnelley largely hasn’t.

A buyer will have to decide whether the Press+ business model has legs. The company, which doesn’t disclose revenues, largely receives its payments in the form of revenue share when readers buy digital-only subscriptions. Yet the growing trend among publishers is to offer single-priced all-access to print/web/tablet/smartphone/e-edition. On those subs, Press+ only takes a smaller annual fee, rather than a rev share. A new owner must fit the Press+ model to its best value proposition: Is it really best practice and analytics, as with the benchmarking product it already sells to those who don’t use Press+ as an e-commerce platform? Or is it software-as-a-service?

Of course, publishers face a paradox as they move more strongly into paid digital access. All-access reader revenue is becoming an absolute core of the business. Do they need own it — and what does owning it mean? For the bigger companies, building their own technologies and integrating it with customer databases has become a top priority. For the many others, what’s the best long-term solution? Press+ argues that its cloud-computing solution is fastest and cheapest, getting publishers into the new marketplace better than the alternatives. That may well have been true for the Paywalls 1.0 era. But as Press+ prepares to change hands again, its clients will have another chance to ask themselves that question.

POSTED     Nov. 6, 2013, 11:11 a.m.
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