Were newspapers wrong to go digital? asks Roy Greenslade, reporting on some very interesting research from the USA. He points out that many, if not most, newspapers could be more profitable if they closed their websites and just focused on print instead.
I don’t think the mistake was going digital, unless any newspaper had obsolescence as its long term plan. However, it’s hard to ignore the unvarnished reality that almost everything newspapers have done in the digital sphere has been a commercial failure.
The challenge now is not to ruminate on what could have been, but to recognise the mistakes so they can be learned from. They can still be corrected.
Two key imperatives
There are two key strategic imperatives which can help answer the conundrum. They are generally valid not just for newspapers and not, in fact, just in the digital sphere, but all media products.
Firstly, popularity must lead to success. In the case of newspapers, that needs to mean that the more you’re read, the more money you make.
Secondly, you must maintain reasonable control over terms of trade. You need to decide how much you sell your product for to the next person in the value chain. If someone else decides whether, and how much, you get paid you cannot build any kind of sustainable business.
So, for newspapers, the mis-steps are obvious when viewed with these two imperatives in mind.
There’s nothing wrong with the idea of charging
Newspapers, nearly universally, abandoned the idea of charging for their online products. Although this led to a huge increase in consumption, it did not (and still does not) lead to a commensurate increase in revenue. Popularity no longer delivers revenue, yet they keep chasing popularity as if it does – frequently making their product horrible for readers as they go.
Looking for the reasons for this, a big one is easy to find in the way the online advertising market works. Newspapers have next-to no influence over the quantity of advertising their sites can sell, nor the price it gets sold for. Achieving flat revenues year-over-year is regarded as a decent outcome by most of them, even if traffic has increased.
Can it be fixed? Yes it can!
What could they do differently, even at this late stage of despair? Sustainable success is still achievable if they can re-build the link between popularity and revenue, and regain control over their terms of trade/
One thing, obvious I think, is to charge for access to their products. There are loads of reasons why this is a good idea not just for newspapers but also for their readers, starting with the fact that it can deliver both strategic imperatives.
Before this seems like the right, even obvious, thing to do, newspaper managers have to accept that traffic is not the same as money and stop judging themselves by meaningless and mostly implausible numbers of “uniques” or other similar metrics. They need to train their staff and their investors to look somewhere else for measures of success, starting with the bottom line. Profit is not a tawdry or embarrassing objective.
Make something worth paying for
Having done this they need to come up with an attractive product. This means more than just slapping a price sticker on the thing they have now.
Current products have evolved in a search-optimised, ad-funded, traffic-hungry, revenue poor environment They aren’t really built with the readers’ delight in mind and are, as the US research points out, almost universally “less-than-satisfactory”.
Newspaper reading has traditionally been driven by habit. Making a habit-forming product, rather than just a data feed for search and social, which people return to every day, is central to success.
A big re-think is needed to create truly engaging, habit-forming, delightful products. There are already products which show the way. Subscribers to The Times, a subscription product built around the needs of users above all else, wlll tell you how much they like and enjoy it. That’s in no small part because a product created with the goal of delighting humans instead of search engines and social platforms is, well… delightful. People want to go back to it.
Price it right
When they have worked out their nice new product, newspapers will have to come up with an attractive price as well. The question is not whether customers are prepared to pay, but how and how much are crucial.
Subscriptions are a dreadful solution to this because they demand commitment from a group of notoriously mercurial customers. Newspaper readership is a casual thing, people change their minds, they switch around, they read more than one thing.
Even if someone forms a habit around a single newspaper, they don’t like to feel that they’re locked-in. So, demanding commitment, making your customers promise to pay you not just now but into the future as well, is unattractive to most readers.
You can achieve a measure of success with subscriptions, as The Times among others has shown. But you leave an awful lot of opportunity and audience on the table. There are better ways, and I’m building one of them.
Have a business plan you can believe in
Once you have your attractive, reader-centric, product, and you’ve got your pricing sorted out, and you have a nice user experience, and you have stopped talking about your product as if it’s a high security zone (a “pay wall” to keep the riff-raff out), you will discover you can write a fairly confident investment case.
Knowing how much revenue you stand to gain as your product builds popularity means you can work out how much to invest in the product, in marketing it, in the content.
In other words, you have a business.
Not only that, you have the ad revenue on top. Unpredictable it will remain, but it will also in future be secondary. You can put it towards the christmas party.
“Ah yes”, I hear the cry. “All sounds very nice but if it was that easy it would have happened by now”.
Whoever is shouting that is committing the greatest sin that the newspaper business has been guilty of in the digital era: a lack of self-confidence and an obliviousness to its own power and influence.
Perhaps because the print market was so mature and didn’t offer much incentive to take risks, perhaps because there have been no genuine strategic challenges for decades, perhaps because the intense short-term focus of the newspapers distracts everyone from thinking about the future, but the newspaper sector has developed an actual aversion to innovation.
They claim to be innovative, like all businesses, but they are not. For newspapers, innovation means following the herd, jumping on bandwagons, doing what everyone else is doing. Copying a seemingly successful tactic you have seen elsewhere. Buying a drone for your CEO and saying “look boss, this is what the cool kids are doing, do you feel cool now?”. It’s fun to play with others people’s toys but ultimately it hasn’t worked.
If there is one reason above all others for the mess they have got in, it is a lack of courage to believe in themselves, an instinct to treat with suspicion any idea which someone else hasn’t already delivered.
This is what has put newspapers in thrall to new platforms whose interests are in no way aligned, but who are younger, cooler and richer.
Doing something to shape the digital landscape into one which works for them is something newspapers haven’t really tried to do because they don’t think they can. But the landscape others have built isn’t one in which they have thrived.
Yes, you can. Really.
If newspapers are finally ready to abandon their defeatist self-pity and act confidently they can still reverse their misfortune. On the other side of it they will find a far richer opportunity than they have ever imagined.
They need to believe in themselves and their ability to product great products which – human – customers love and will pay for.
One more thing…
There’s one other bit to making this work, of course. They all need mechanisms capable of delivering the money in a way which doesn’t make paying for their products more trouble than its worth.
That’s what I’m working on. I can see the money, the opportunity and the way to deliver it. I’m working with a group of gratifyingly receptive and non-defeatist publishers, as well as some other media companies, to develop it in partnership. We will be launching the first products in the new year.
If you’re a publisher of any kind of media product, or a creator, you will love it because it will connect your popularity with revenue and give you an opportunity to develop, grow and attract investment to your business.
If you’re a user you will love it too because you’ll be in charge – you’ll be able to access everything and because everyone will be competing for your money, they’ll also be competing to make the product and offer you love enough to pay. You’ll be the customer again.
If you don’t believe me, or want to pick holes in my logic, or want to understand my reasoning in more detail, or want to just tell me how wrong I am, get in touch and lets talk.
So, Roy, going digital was not a mistake for newspapers, but the failure to innovate and drive their business rationally most certainly was. That, however, can change.