Last week at the 9th International Newsroom Summit, Mashable reported that The New York Times‘ publisher and chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. told attendees “We will stop printing The New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD.” I was pleased to hear someone in the newspaper industry articulate the obvious: Newspapers, as we know them, are going away.
But what about newspaper brands? Will venerable brands like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Chicago Tribune become yesterday’s news? iPad to the rescue, or so we’re told. Steve Job’s sleek slate has been touted as the industry’s game-changing savior. In fact, the San Jose Mercury News reports that Apple will soon announce an iTunes-based subscription platform specifically for newspapers. In this vision of the future, all newspapers will develop apps and presto: Crisis averted. Not a chance.
What will save newspapers are the same things that save any product in a free market: keeping the brand relevant, delivering more value than competitors, and remaining profitable. As far as I know, there’s not an app for that.
Making a brand relevant in the digital age is not so much about understanding digital content distribution technology as it is about understanding the digital user. To date, newspaper brands have had an uneasy relationship with this audience. I suspect it’s driven by a reluctance to stray from the print-centric business model that has delivered so much power and prosperity in the past. Today, instead of leading the migration online, newspapers have been left in the dust.
While apps are no silver bullet, they are part of what it will take to convince paper readers who have shifted to digital news platforms that newspaper brands are still relevant. Then, of course, there is the entire generation of digital natives behind them who are about as likely to soil their hands with newsprint as they are to listen to Englebert Humperdinck on 8-track. These people are far more loyal to their platform of choice than to any of the faded newspaper brands that have been in decline since they were old enough to read. Building relevant and sustainable brands with this crowd will take more than an app. It will take adaption to a new digital world order where competition is more splintered and newspapers hold considerably less sway than their publishers are accustomed to.
All of this means newspapers will have to start charging for digital content. The shift from free to fee will be difficult, but it is not without precedent. David Simon made this clear when he spoke before a Senate subcommittee hearing on the future of journalism. Author of "The Wire" TV series and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, Simon noted how for the first 30 years TV also was free. Imagine asking viewers in the 1980s to pay to watch the nightly news, "Dallas" or "The Three Stooges" reruns. They would have probably reacted like many Internet users are reacting to newspaper pay walls today. Then in the mid-‘80s, cable channels arrived and offered better productions and more customized programming. The public gladly followed paying $80 or more a month for pay TV. A lot of it comes down to value and how you approach the public.
Like many of you, I don't want to see our newspaper brands fade away. I particularly do not want to see journalism, as a profession, go away with them, so I'm OK with newspapers charging for digital content. I think most people online would be OK with it if newspapers go about it the right way. Here are a few tips I would offer today’s newspaper brands to make the transition smoother for all parties.
1.) Realize that news is, and will continue to be, free online no matter what you do. If you want readers to pay online, you will have to do one better than that. Figure out how you can deliver value beyond the headlines and then promote it. Think commentary, investigative reporting, local coverage, and reviews.
2.) Start repositioning your brand. Move it away from “news” and “paper” categories and closer to “journalism” and “insight” categories. As mentioned, the “what, where, and when” will always be free online. Focus on providing the "why."
3.) Make sure your pricing makes sense to your buyers. People generally don’t complain about the cost of a newspaper. Explain your pricing model in terms people understand.
4.) Do more than just provide a digital version of their current offer. Enders Analysis claims that “A newspaper pay wall subscriber is worth only a quarter to a third of a print buyer: even if every single print buyer is successfully converted to the pay wall, newspapers will still face a basic problem of scale.” They must get busy finding new ways to offer readers value to produce additional revenue streams.
5.) As you set up shop in the app store, remember that 87 percent have never paid for an app. The remaining 13 percent have shelled out only a buck or two (Nielsen). Even if you offer a significant discount over your printed version, you will still be charging 100 times the price of most apps today. That will stun most app users if the value is not communicated well. Perhaps you should coin a new term to explain this like “appscription.”
6.) Be careful what you call a “free app." Free apps as we know them may have premium versions, but the free version is still complete. For instance, a free chess app may allow me to upgrade to a version without ads and with better graphics, but it would never remove the rooks in its free version to motivate me to upgrade. Nor would it stop a game halfway through and charge me to keep playing. The Wall Street Journal takes this approach. It offers a free news app, then restricts access and badgers me with annoying pop-up ads that demand me to pay for a subscription to keep reading. This is bad form and perverts the app into an ad in app’s clothing. On my iPad, these faux apps are deleted swiftly, ending any further dialog with their publisher.
7.) Sell the way people online like to buy. If they want to buy single issues, let them. If they want to subscribe for a year, let them do that, too. Most schemes I’ve seen neglect the casual reader and instead deliver the ultimatum: Commit to a subscription for several months or shove off.
8.) Develop your app aggressively once it is launched. Strive to discover new possibilities offered by digital media and drive innovation especially in the area of customization, sharing, and community building.
9.) Ensure that I can interact with the news in a way that I’m used to. That means being able to easily rate, share, and comment on every story.
10.) Do not let Rupert Murdoch dictate the future of digital news. Kudos to Mr. Murdoch for taking an early lead in monetizing digital news distribution. Reports also say he has the world’s first two purpose-built news apps in the works for later this year. However, I think it would help the digital news business if his interpretation of fair and impartial journalism was not the only benchmark out there.
The hardest adjustment for newspaper brands moving in the digital space may be one of mindset: letting go of old ways and embracing new directions. I hope they succeed. What would you advise these brands as they make the transition?