‘The newspaper industry has gone from the Flintstones to the Jetsons in the space of a decade.’

Two of Australia’s quality dailies, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age, went tabloid this morning (Monday) and it was just the peg the Australian media needed to talk about the threat to print from digital. And the slippery slope down market.

It’s worth watching this report from ABC to get a sense of some of the contrasting views on the move over there, which mirror the conversations over here.

Personally I was particularly struck by this from Garry Linnell, editorial director of Fairfax, the publisher of both papers. Here, for once, was a senior executive not pretending to have it all mapped out.

What’s the future for newspapers? I don’t know. I mean I didn’t know five years ago that we would be publishing on a tablet. In five years time we will be broadcasting of a hologram of a paper boy into your living room screaming out that morning’s headlines? I don’t know. I can’t predict it.

All I know is that this industry has actually gone from the Flintstones to the Jetsons in the space of a decade.

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The art of reinvention

A recurring theme of this week’s Digital Media Strategies 2013 conference in London was reinvention.

Here’s the drill: the transition from traditional media to digital media is disruptive and while it doesn’t necessarily destroy it does fragment and when those fragments are pieced together they are often done so in ways completely different from before.

That’s the theory. What about the practice? Here are three examples:

The Economist is now a radio broadcaster. Well not quite but it does deliver 1.5 million audio streams a month, according to Nick Blunden. That presents an interesting opportunity, he argued, because it allows The Economist not just to compete for scarce “reading time” but — given people can listen while doing something else — also to compete for their “free time”.

Auto Trader: the people behind this new-and-used car magazine have turned themselves from publisher to search provider; an obvious move in retrospect for a listings paper but, most likely, brave at the time. That initial move last decade has, said Trader Media Group’s Nick Gee, made the “transition to mobile relatively easy”. Now a third of their traffic comes from mobile phones. And, given the rate of growth, Gee predicted that like Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, he’ll be able to call Trader Media a mobile company by the end of the year.

Computer Weekly, launched in 1966, was the world’s first weekly technology newspaper  and became the UK’s last weekly technology newspaper when it stopped printing in 2011. The transition from print to print-plus-digital to digital-only brought with it new lessons and insights, said editor-in-chief Bryan Glick. For example, “We moved from knowing exactly who was subscribing but no idea what they were reading to knowing exactly what they were reading but no idea who they were.” Online registration has since underpinned Computer Weekly’s business model.

Another insight: the assumption that news was what the reader craved did not quite hold up to scrutiny. “News attracts [readers] but long form is what keeps them there,” he said. Where once the ratio of stories was 70:30 in favour of news the editorial team now produce as many long form pieces as they do news stories.

I’ve written more about The Economist and Auto Trader talks over on the Press Gazette — and plan to flesh out some thoughts about Glick’s very interesting Computer Weekly presentation in due course.

#WhatIsAMagazine

Earlier this month MacFormat editor Christopher Phin set out to try to answer the following, deceptively simple question: What is a magazine? Phin’s contribution wasn’t designed to be the last word on the subject. Rather it was a collection of thoughts, an opening gambit to a conversation that is particularly live as we contemplate digital alternatives/replacements/companions.

Other have since chipped in (naturally there’s a Twitter hashtag — #whatisamagazine — pulling it all together) but it’s Phin’s original and Alan Rutter’s immediate response that strike a chord. Both are well worth reading in full but I’ve picked out what, for my money, are the most compelling points from each, arguments that throw down a challenge to those thinking digital.

First Phin:

A magazine is a curated thing; knowledge, refined … The amount of information available on the internet is one of its great weaknesses as well as a great strength; never mind finding stuff, never mind the cognitive overload required to track down all the good stuff and organise it; part of what you buy a magazine for is trusting that someone’s curated or created the best stuff about the things you care about. Can smarter algorithms obviate this? I suspect not, not without a change in AI that is impossible, practically, for us to envisage in all but the most abstract terms. But might they dramatically shift the balance? And what about filtering information that your social circle unearths? Does that circle jerk actually expose you to new, fresh, challenging information? Does it have to? And so on.

Rutter continues this thought when he writes that a magazine is Finite:

Sometimes when you’re thirsty, you’d like a glass of water – rather than having a firehose opened up directly into your face (that last bit represents the internet, by the way). As we curate, we create a cohesive and satisfying package. This can and is replicated in digital as well as print. Try giving a user a long piece of writing on a digital device without any progress bar, page counter or other indication of how far through it they are – they will hate it. It’s disconcerting. We like to complete things.

He adds that a magazine is:

An experience, not a commodity … Magazines that were primarily functional (classifieds, listings, basic news) have been the hardest hit by the rise of digital. But buying most magazines is an emotive act rather than a rational one. Vogue is not ‘task-oriented’.

This last point is difficult to overstate. Unlike Vogue, the Financial Times is ‘task-oriented’ (and a newspaper not a magazine) but the purchasing decision, like that of Vogue, is at least in part driven by emotion.

This is something that the FT editor Lionel Barber acknowledged in an interview with the Guardian a week ago. Having spent much of the interview reflecting on the importance of digital for the 125-year-old newspaper, he then sets out why print remains important (the emphasis is mine):

“It is still a vital source of advertising revenue,” he says, “and I want to make sure the newspaper survives for quite a while. It’s also a fashion accessory, a marketing device. And some people, admittedly our older buyers, still want to read newsprint.

 

Update: I’ve fleshed out these thoughts in this Press Gazette blog post.

Apple must deliver new subscribers or publishers will walk (and six other thoughts)

I spent this morning at DCM Europe, 40 minutes of which was on a panel discussing pricing models, magazine publishing and tablet computers. In a (possibly failed) effort to marshal my thoughts, I wrote this yesterday — seven random arguments on the tablet opportunity.

Here are those seven thoughts — and even after a pretty robust discussion, I still believe they have a fair amount of merit:

1. The free trial might be the nearest publishers get to freemium

2. The games console model might just work for apps

3. Publishers want to own the relationship with their readers

4. Apple must deliver new subscribers or publishers will walk

5. Responsive design is an opportunity and a threat to paywalled tablet content

6. Android is a good medium term bet

7. The Daily was a success story. Sort of

You can read the full article over at the Press Gazette.

The paradox of sharing: the more you give it away, the more they’ll pay

Craig Mod’s subcompact publishing manifesto is worth reading in full but I’ve picked out the following because it goes to the heart of a paradox of online publishing which I suspect is true but have yet to see any data to support it:

Users are much more likely to share a link to the full-text of an article than a truncated version. Increased sharing means more eyeballs, and more eyeballs — if conversion rates remain static — means more downloads and subscriptions.

In other words, the more you give it away the better the chance you have of making money. Counter-intuitive? Certainly. Nonsensical? I’m not so sure.

(For some more things worth reading this week take a look at the Digital half dozen over on Press Gazette.)

“The Daily had over 100,000 paying subscribers. That ain’t nothing!”

Most salient thought on the demise of News Corp’s The Daily comes from Joshua Benton:

Here’s the thing: The Daily had over 100,000 paying subscribers. That ain’t nothing! With most subscribers paying $39.99 a year (others paid 99 cents a week), minus Apple’s cut, that’s around $3 million in annual revenue — and that’s before you add in advertising revenue. At various points, it was the highest-grossing app in the App Store in 13 different countries. In the United States, it’s been in the top 5 of news apps by gross since launch and, until this summer, consistently in the top 20 of all apps — even including Angry Birds and the rest. You can absolutely build a real online news organization on that kind of revenue.

You just can’t build one that has 200 staffers. Or 150 staffers. Or 100 staffers.

My thoughts are here.