Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Cretaceous-Tertiary time for papers?

Two straws in the gale blowing round media and new media, both pointing in the same direction, and one’s blown away:

The Reader’s Digest has filed for bankruptcy in the US. This may be about the reinvention of the dentist’s waiting room as much as anything else, but RD lives on the sheves of second hand book dealers around the world in the form of conedensed books. I haven’t read one in years, and associated the brand primarily with prize draws to sell subscriptions back in the eighties. However it was a great brand in its day, and had a faithful and sizeable following — at 8·2 million considerably larger than anything on the UK print media scene. In June it had prudently revised its guaranteed circ figure to 5·5 million, with worse to come.

RD was the Google newsfeed of 1922, and it certainly soared in its prime. Over 75’s will take a cup of kindness yet for the sake of “humor in uniform” or “laughter is the best medicine?” RD’s radical restructing / demise shows the intensity of the winds of change sweeping through print media. It may be that the magazine died by becoming too comfortably embedded in its clientele. Reinvention is a necessity, not an option.

Anecdotally, five years ago I took stock of a carriage of morning commuters travelling into Marylebone in May and noticed about 40/60 reading paying Fleet Street Titles, mostly Telegraphs, Mails and Times, with half a dozen Guardians. A carriage of sixty people on the same service earlier this year had only five newspaper readers out of 65, two Mails, a Times and two Metros (a new model freesheet with which some say the streets of London are paved). Most were reading books, playing with phones or ipods and doing puzzles. The fact that more than twice as many people in the carriage found it more engaging to stare out the window than to read a Fleet Street paying title indicates the depth of the problem.

This brings me to Rupert Murdoch’s announcement that all his titles will start charging for online content by next year. I can understand why and sympathize. All hard indications are that his present business model is melting under him faster than the polar icecap. He’s already tried diversifying into the yacht hire business, so, Children, this is serious.

The rub has to be how to charge — the devil is most certainly in the detail. It is not easy to fix your roof in the hurricane season, and the music and video industries’ experience is not entirely encouraging. FT is probably the most interesting payment model in the UK, and this may be a way to go. Whether people would shell out for gossip, and if so how much is another question. Will his new subscription income match the amount he will have to spend on lawyers?

Perhaps an inexorable content evolution is happening. The hot journalistic added value is progressively not to be found in the story, which is likely to surface through hot media way before anywhere else, but rather the op-ed aspect of it.

The money shot will be in the quality of writing and comment in depth, not the scoop — the breadth and connection, not the novelty.

People will always pay for particular premium content, but not mass produced Flat Earth news. I suspect that the only UK site I would subscribe to, if I had to, is BBC news. Hang on, I do subscribe. It’s called the Licence Fee and I’m glad to pay it. After a couple of decades economising on journalists, recovering high added value will be difficult on various levels for Fleet Street.

Corporately it will need companies to back out of the cul-de-sac labelled production economies and promotions and invest heavily and counterculturally in good present and future journalists — not something they have shown any particular desire or proclivity for doing. I’m not sure any of the Fleet Street stable have the journalistic resilience to produce anything worth paying for, but I’d love to be wrong.
We’ll see.

PS Thanks to Jeff Jarvis on 24 August, for three more nails in the US Newspaper Coffin — Coupons and Circular (Valassis), Movie listings, and death notices...

h/t the Disney Dinosaur — who found out the hard way all about dwindlng resources and the need to change...


bread-sandwich said...

I sell newspapers for a living, but I certainly don't read them. A few months ago I got a phone deal with a good internet connection, and if I have a spare moment there are a few news websites I like to read. When you have this facility to hand the concept of paying for a newspaper starts to seem a little odd.

I think that even if Fleet Street improves its journalist team most people won't pay for internet subscriptions to newspapers. Any news internet site you have to pay for sets itself up against all the various news sites that are free.

If there's a major crisis or event, I find that the best way to follow it is by dipping into twitter every so often, keeping an eye of wikipedia, reading a few underground newspapers for commentary and the BBC for fact checking. That way you can follow it real time from several different perspectives.

Newspapers can't compete with that kind of coverage

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I have to say I think you're right about newspapers in general. People paid premium prices for newspapers in the good old days because they couldn't get the entertainment elsewhere, and they couldn't communicate amongst themselves easily at distance except through tooled up printed third parties. The production cost of an online product is basically zero to the user, and that's a very absolute number to have to compete with, even for Mr Murdoch.

In the same way that some horse riders reinvented themselves as drivers with the internal combustion engine, some conventional journalists will be able to reinvent themselves for the new world, but some, I fear, not.

I myself gave up subscribing to a Fleet Street paper in 2001, after I noticed I was the only person in our household of 7 actually bothering ever to read it. I can't imagine anyone any of my children's ages wanting to pay good money, certainly not hundreds a year, to have their information from one source once a day. It looks as though the day of one-way passive media consumption is gone, let alone expensive one way media, where you pay hundreds a year to keep Mr Murdoch on his yacht.

Gerald (SK14) said...

I haven't bought a newspaper for donkeys-years - even pre-internet the TV and teletext supplied most of my news interest. I'll pick up a Metro whenever I'm on a bus and in any cafe that provides free newspaper I'll read one then.

Steve Hayes said...

One of the things about the Internet is that one has access to a wide variety of sources. If Mr Murdoch wants to make his inaccessible, he'll be cutting off his nose to spite his face. Internet access is expensive enough, and I certainly couldn't afford to pay more to subscribe to one partcular source. I look at Mr Murdoch's offerings maybe once a month - usually when I'm referred to them from a blog post, and then it's just one story, not the whole publication.

bread-sandwich said...

I must admit to a certain degree of arrogance on this case. For all of my adult life I've been able to access information in as much detail as I like, or in a compressed form if necessary.

For a while, a few years back I went through a phase of buying newspapers. I had pet rats at the time, you see, and I needed something to line their cage with.

Being of a generation thoroughly used to modern conveniences, I sometimes wonder if we would buy papers if we didn't have the Internet. Most people I know don't follow the news on-line in any case, and to be honest I mostly read about science and technology these days.

Maybe we're just lazy, apathetic and making excuses for ourselves.

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