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.
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...