Paywalls, format and why we don’t always know what’s going to happen even when the signs are there

For observers of digital media two things stood out in Alan Rusbridger’s valedictory column in Saturday’s Guardian. The first was more obvious, the second more interesting.

1. On paywalls
The outgoing editor compares what he calls the “polar opposites” of the UK newspaper trade – the paywalled Times and the free-to-air Guardian. The Times, he notes, claims a daily audience of 281,000 while the Guardian registers 7 million unique browsers a day.

On an equal accounting basis, we’re losing (or investing) about the same amount of money. You’ll have to come back in 10 or even 20 years time to find out who judged the future best.

While he’s right to say it will take a while for the winning formula to be identified – and it may well be neither of the above – I wonder if The Times accept the phrase “equal accounting basis”.

2. On newspaper formats
Today’s discussions about publishing formats are most likely to involve 6in smartphones and 10in tablets but back in 2005 format meant broadsheet, tabloid or – in the case of the Guardian – the mid-sized Berliner. Why did the Guardian go for the third option when The Times and The Independent went tabloid? Rusbridger says there were “various reasons”. Intriguingly, one of those reasons was:

the amount of classified advertising we still took in print at that point

With the benefit of hindsight, print classifieds were already in terminal decline by 2005 with job boards, Craigslist, eBay and others making deep in-roads. Signs of digital disintermediation were evident everywhere. The chunky Monday Guardian, bulked out by media job ads that made it a default purchase for those us in the industry, was already thinning out.

Should the Guardian have read the signals better a decade ago? Perhaps. Will we continue to miss emerging trends likely to have a similar impact? Probably.

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