In last wednesday’s Irish Times, the former editor Conor Brady penned a thoughtful opinion piece on the demise of professional journalism in face of the internet, and how traditional newspapers need legislative and/or fiscal protection. It is freely available online here, but I expect it will disappear behind a paywall into the Irish Times online archives, as is the Times’ policy, within a few days of this post.
As a regular contributor to the Irish Times myself, I wrote a response, in which I strongly feel that the traditional newspaper industry – including the Irish Times – seem to be missing an enormous opportunity to embrace the internet and so make substantial revenues from their online activity.
I submitted my piece, but it was rejected by the editor concerned on the basis of pressure on space.
So I reproduce what I wrote below. Hope it is of interest to anyone reflecting on the future of the newspaper industry…
What indeed is the future of serious news media ? Conor Brady, former editor of the Irish Times, penned a reflective piece on Wednesday 8th February last, expressing concern about the future of professional print journalism, and noting that accuracy and authority in journalism are costly, labour-intensive commodities. It was perhaps unfortunate that his piece was placed opposite an editorial on woeful standards in print journalism, but nevertheless his arguments for a new and special treatment for print journalism in the light of the internet do deserve consideration and comment.
Journalism has three categories: news, analysis, and investigation. With the emergence of the internet, news has become a 24 hour by 7 day a week global fire hose fed not only by professional journalists, but also by ordinary members of the public. If traditional media is to provide a professional news service, it can no longer operate on the daily cycle of the print newspaper: hacks and editors turning up late morning, working through the afternoon and into early evening. Further, foreign news correspondents are not only costly, but also may risk death in conflict situations: breaking news sourced from ordinary citizens is lower cost and may be physically safer. News is no longer news if it published just once every 24 hours: news is news if it is breaking and independently verifiable. The traditional newspapers and their business models would seem to be challenged if they are to really be competitive in todays news market.
Newspapers are on much more solid foundation if they focus on insightful analysis, and high quality investigative journalism. Readers today purchase quality newspapers not so much for breaking news, but for interpretation, explanation and correlation which professional journalists can bring to bear. In many ways, individual journalists become the crown jewels of a good newspaper, and the public frequently purchases the newspaper to read the analysis and comment by their favorite journalists.
Newspapers bundle content into a package which their editors deem to be appropriate. The content of a newspaper is decided by its editor, and of necessity much of what may be very interesting and relevant to a particular reader must be sacrificed for a more general audience. Analysis of international news frequently falls foul of this filtering and selection, and thus to obtain a more balanced perspective on global events, a reader must look beyond the content of a single newspaper.
Newspapers are put together much as music producers used to bundle songs and works by artists into predefined collections on LP albums. Online, the music industry has been transformed by offering individual tracks for separate purchase, allowing consumers to mix’n’match as each chooses. When Apple partnered with a number of major music publishers in 2003 to build the “iTunes store”, it changed the music industry. It now seems challenging for newspapers to follow this approach (although some newspapers are trying to do so). Not only does Apple impose a considerable royalty for making content available via its online store but also, unlike a musical track, and up to now newspaper articles are usually each consumed just once.
But these are no reasons not to unbundle an online newspaper. I do not advocate that online newspapers need necessarily use Apple as a channel. However if articles were individually purchasable, rather than just the entire paper as the editors canned choice, it is more than reasonable to assume that online revenues would actually increase!
Let me explain why. First, individual readers would chose not only articles who headlines interested them, but also their favorite journalists. This alone is unlikely to drive higher revenues for the newspaper, since the price paid by each reader for a selection of articles is likely to be less than the full price of the entire newspaper. Nevertheless unbundling creates an extremely valuable advantage for a newspaper on the internet. Because each reader’s choice articles can now be known, and may be accumulated (with the reader’s permission) over the days and weeks of consumption, it becomes possible to suggest further articles on the same themes, tailored to each and every reader. Each time such a suggestion is then followed by that reader, further revenue is generated. Further, by incorporating archival material into this approach, it is entirely credible that the online newspaper becomes highly attractive – “sticky” in internet parlance – and ultimately would generate a considerable income stream for the newspaper.
Conor Brady expresses concern that much internet content is “theft on a grand scale, ripping off reporters and editors whose organizations have to pick up the bill”. But if reading an online newspaper becomes a richer experience in that not only are todays articles available, but also each article is placed in the context of previous relevant and interesting contributions, then the newspaper provides much more value than picking up a specific plagiarized article elsewhere on the internet.
There is a further considerable benefit to understanding each reader’s journalists and articles of choice. It enables an online newspaper to do exactly what Google and Facebook and other online communities do, although quite conceivably much much better. Traditional newspapers and media often voice deep concern about the loss of advertising revenue to the online giants. Yet if an online newspaper is aware of each of its readers specific interests, it creates a very considerable opportunity to place highly directed advertising specifically tailored to each individuals interests. Google tries to understand each individuals interests by what is sought via its search engine, and Facebook tries to do so by analyzing the chit chat amongst friends. A newspaper, if it knows what specific articles each reader peruses each day, almost certainly would have far more accurate information than either Google or Facebook from which to catalyse high value advertising.
A payment model for an online, unbundled, newspaper could be prepay, subscription, or post-pay for trusted clients. Prepay would of course have the advantage that the newspaper would collect its money upfront, prior to consumption. Whatever payment means, or selection of mechanisms, are offered, the key point is that articles should be individually purchasable, for a relatively nominal amount compared to the cost of a full edition of the newspaper.
Of course, building a dis-aggregated newspaper would require investment. A modern content management system would be needed, so that articles, including archives, could be readily accessible. A high quality digital librarian with a discovery engine, able to ferret out related content to specific articles, would be invaluable not only to the readership, but almost certainly to journalists themselves as they research each new piece. Journalists may need to change their way of working: when writing a new piece, a journalist would be encouraged to embed links to related articles, so that once published the readers of the piece would be naturally encouraged to click through these links, and so consume more content.
I believe that the traditional newspaper industry has an immense opportunity with the internet. The internet can accelerate the success of the established brands, if there is sufficient vision and executive leadership.