Funding the future

Questions I’ve been asked my thoughts on recently:

1. Should papers charge for some content online?
2. Could more money be made from paid content than advertising?
3. What about premium models?
4. How will new technologies affect charging?
5. Is it better to be an early adopter or a follower?
6. What about competitors? How do we respond to what they do?

Tricky eh? And my lack of answers led me to spend an afternoon rifling Google Scholar, blogs and articles to try and see if I could at least understand the issues better. I’ve linked to those I found useful, and I have some ideas now – but I still don’t have answers…

Should papers charge for all/some content? Rupert Murdoch thinks so. Consumers, obviously, disagree: Only 16 per cent of consumers said they would rather pay for content (and avoid online ads) one survey found. Leaving the nationals aside, on the subject of charging for content, specialist or otherwise, Mark Potts, says “any given local media ecosystem also comprises community papers, alternative papers, business papers, ethnic papers, TV stations, radio stations, blogs, community newsgroups and listservs, Web players (Yelp, Citysearch, craigslist, etc.) and many others….the marketplace is going to shrug and turn elsewhere to find out what’s going on around town, for free”.
I’m interested to see where Journalism Online takes things but, right here and now I don’t think regional newspapers are in a position to start charging for content, specialist or otherwise.

Could more money be made from paid content than advertising? I’d guess not with most newspapers’ existing websites, editorial production models and commercial and editorial set-ups (and mindsets.
I’m intrigued by the Newport Daily News deciding to make its online readers pay a lot more to access content than it charges for its printed editions and maybe strong regional brands might see an opportunity with this idea (Sheila L. Mullowney, the newspaper’s executive editor, describes as “a print-newspaper-first strategy*”) but investing in commercial technologies and training, recruiting and retaining the right commercial teams, caring about the products on offer, creating relevant, user-friendly advertising platforms and being able to provide paying clients and consumers with real excellence is perhaps a more realistic goal.
*Caveat: The News is a family-owned business, and has “no debt” or shareholders expecting high profits either. It is not, I think, a yardstick for much of the industry.

The WSJ is, I guess, the most successful example of using a paywall. Alan Murray, executive editor, says Google News readers are now allowed behind the paywall because they have no relationship with the paper and arrive via a search. He also says you shouldn’t put your most popular content behind a paywall because you restrict your reach, and believes content behind a pay wall should appeal to (sometimes very small) niches.
Quite a few industry brains think Alan Murray is wrong; I think the WSJ model is imperfect but there are lessons to learn from its operation.

The WSJ’s paid content relies on brand strength, very high quality journalism, and niche targeting. To provide high quality journalism, you have to ensure all your journalists aren’t all grinding out copy in a never-ending battle to fill overnight pages. In short, you have to ask which is more important: print or online?
And since I’m on thin ice, I’m going to edge out further and say that while premiership football might seem like an obvious niche, it’s not.

Football clubs, like newspapers, are in the main now run as plcs not family businesses or hobbies (generally anyway – and for every Chelsea there’s a Newcastle Utd), and break their own exclusives, make tv shows, interview players and managers, and generally aim to spin and influence reporters to their advantage. Maybe, though, there is a real opportunity to apply quality sports journalism to grassroots sports – football, rugby, gymnastics, whatever. A searchable online archive of all your newspapers going back to the Year Dot could be considered niche, as could photo archives, and personalisation.

At the very least, premium models have a better chance of success than a broad paywall approach. But newspapers that attempt premium models will need to offer good user experience, excellent interface, mobile integration and keep investing, improving and innovating, because the ground will keep shifting.

Technology (and cultural shifts) will inevitably affect charging; mobile remains an emerging area and Nokia to Apple proved scope exists to charge for packaged content easily browsed on-the-go although USA Today learned a hard lesson with its free iPhone app.
Geotargeting mobile customers is a proven, effective way of extending commercial reach, rss can easily carry advertising, podcasts and video should be topped and tailed with commercial opportunities, with the option of an ad break for longer shows.

Newspaper companies also eying e-readers as a potential way of introducing commercial models to users (younger, more affluent, probably familiar with buying content online – whether Amazon or their iPod) – after all, the Kindle 2 is used by the New York Times, WSJ, FT and USA Today.
I think the mobile web could be far more commercially viable but it’s not the whole answer.
I pay for some apps on my iPod but I don’t pay for news on that or on my pc – I go elsewhere. Hidden it behind a paywall? No matter, I or someone in my network will source the same article elsewhere on the web within minutes.
So, drawing on my own experience, I’d say e-readers should be a part of a business model – but not a big part. I was interested in Steven R. Swartz, president of Hearst Newspapers, saying: “We believe we must begin to provide greater differentiation between the content of our free Web sites and the content of our paid product, be that paid product read in print, on a digital device like Amazon’s Kindle, or online,” but I note his all-staff email opens with the need to cut costs.

Early adopter or follower? without being glib, I’d go for early follower. Early adopters might go into something with a bigger budget but it doesn’t mean the outcome will be more successful for being first.
Plus, if a business strategy is robust, flexible and truly forward-looking then the actions of a rival can help inform decisions but I doubt someone is going to come up with a gasoline pill. Whatever one company does, a rival will copy and do differently, while claiming their model is better, more innovative, cheaper or successful.
It’s just the way of the world.
* Update: I forgot to link to this post by Kevin Matthews too.

My online identity

I’m speaking at the Art of Digital event in Liverpool tomorrow.
The topic of the learning lab is The Personal which (according to the accompanying blurb) is

“all about the role and influence of people and organisations. We have recently seen the emergence of the self at the heart of online communication, placing the individual at the centre of digital culture.”

Anyway, I’ve been given the theme Identity 2.0, and I have an hour in which to expand my theories. Which is a good topic for me as I’m prone to telling anyone who stands still long enough that journalists must develop and grow their own digital identities if they are to compete in a rapidly expanding arena.

I wasn’t going to do a powerpoint, I was just going to talk it through; then I realised my digital life is a bit more eloquent than I am. So I’ve put a few slides together, and I’m also going to borrow from the ‘year of the blog‘ posts I wrote earlier this year.

The slide that sums up the issues around where the professional ends, and the real person begins, I think, is the Twitter one. At 7.18pm I tweet about not giving “a shit about Spymaster”, and at 7.19pm I inform the world of the wonderful online election coverage available on our websites. A complete fluke, and I only noticed when I was trawling back through Twitter looking for good and bad examples of my tweeting habits.
Professionalism, ur doin’ it rong…

I really hope, I don’t mess up tomorrow. Wish me luck.

Just gimme the facts, ma’am

The last post I wrote about open lines of communication prompted a few comments (thanks all) including a well-reasoned argument from James Goffin that, sometimes, people just wanted the facts. Not interaction, not contribution, just… to know clearly and concisely what was going on. You can find more at his newspaper blog.

And I started to post a reply, James, but it got so long I’ve ended up lifting it out as a standalone post; I hope you don’t mind.
See, I am convinced to the point of being mildly obsessive that open journalism is a vital part of our future.
And I know, when I suggest we should operate wiki principles in our newsgathering and story-presenting, that not everyone out there will want to get involved. Some will indeed just want the facts.
However, the opportunities we can now offer those who do want to interact are now so great that surely we have to take every advantage of them? Even if it occasionally blows up in our faces like this.

I’d be willing to bet a large proportion of people (our potential if not existing audience) do want to be more involved with news-making – it’s just that they have little opportunity other than through online commenting, or by ringing the newsdesk to get barked at by someone who equates rudeness with importance.
For many, a newspaper must be a completely unfamiliar and impenetrable institution, possibly to be contacted in extremis, when other avenues have been exhausted. If they’re really unlucky they might even have blundered into a newspaper’s online forums and been put off for life.

Newspaper journalists who blog about their subjects have a great platform for interaction but not everyone uses it as a way of conversation yet, although I think that will change pretty quickly.
We don’t dispute that crowdsourcing is journalism, involving multiple contributors. It means that instead of a reporter setting out with a fixed idea of where the story will go, contributors take control. It can also mean a story becomes something very different to what the newsdesk originally thought it would be – and that’s a good thing, I think.

I understand the point James makes when he says “I just want someone I trust to tell me what is going on” – many people who ring a newsdesk phone are essentially saying that. But the whole issue of trust is a tricky one.
How do we trust someone? I’d guess it’s by establishing a relationship with them.
Do journalists on your average regional daily have that kind of relationship now?
I’d say not.

We need to be more open, invite collaboration, and earn trust. Existing readers probably do have a fair degree of trust and faith in their local paper but the competition is now so great, and the options for audience to go elsewhere so varied, that we need to be making far greater efforts to connect and set out our stall.
And why should someone trust us? Because we’re journalists? Nope, not going to happen. But if what we do is open, visible and open to comment and questioning, and if they are involved, then the dynamic starts to change. It’s hard to argue with the success of, and I’m excited to see where Help Me Investigate goes.

Anyway, enough. Melanie Sill, of the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, says it better than me:

Good journalism should speak for itself, but that only works if people are reading or listening.

We have to have an audience for what we do; the best way to build that audience is to offer people the chance to get involved, and produce great journalism they want to read. Otherwise, we’re writing for our newsdesks…