New Year thoughts for old-media hands

The second sentence of the intro seems to set the tone for the
newspaper industry in the new decade.
 Good luck for 2011. Joe

What Comes After Newspapers: Forget Form, It's About Content
 By Andrew Walkingshaw/paidcontent

Let's try a thought experiment. The current newspaper business model
is beyond fixing. What happens next? A bunch of companies need to find
something people want. We've got companies like that: lots of talent,
some capital, no business model. They're startups. Here, newspapers
now have more in common with three guys in a back bedroom than the
company they've been keeping up to now. They've got some unique
issues, too, like huge and inappropriate cost and capital structures,
but they have the nucleus of really strong teams and they've got
fantastically strong brands, public goodwill and link equity. What can
you make from that? What will people pay for?

Whatever it is, it's likely to be something new. How do we know what's
fundamentally new and what's just cosmetically different, though?
Sometimes they're hard to distinguish. Take tablets, for example. The
Times is betting heavily on the iPad. I'm an iPad-toting media junkie.
I can't be bothered to even download the Times app. That's not
promising for team Murdoch. Actually, I'm finding it hard to see how
it can work at all. Simply put: after the novelty wears off, who are
the customers who are going to pay for this thing?

At Timetric, my bluntness sometimes stresses my colleagues out. I'm
not exactly a model of diplomacy. However, I believe the alternative,
when you're talking strategy, is worse; woolliness is at best a sign
of magical thinking and most likely one of full-on self-delusion. If
you can't state your customer proposition simply and clearly,
explaining who gets what benefit and how and why they'll pay for it,
and back that up with actual people who confirm your hypotheses, then
you're spinning yourself a yarn.

The benefit of reading the content the WSJ pushes to me — and the WSJ,
like the Times, is a branch of News Corporation — is straightforward:
it helps me understand economic issues I need to understand in my
professional life. Delivery to my iPad is convenient and a nice
gesture, but it's a fringe benefit; a reason to pick the WSJ over
another source of market intelligence. In other words, I had a need
which I previously filled in other ways. However, I'm willing to pay
for the WSJ content package, because that package could make me more
successful, because parts of it are genuinely unique and because the
package itself is assembled by experts.

It's straightforward tactics. If the WSJ app switches enough people
like me — consumers of economic and business news — away from Fortune
or Bloomberg Radio or CNBC, or if it reduces subscriber churn enough,
then it's likely to justify the development cost and to be a smart

In comparison, the Times apps on iPad, and indeed most newspaper apps,
and indeed most newspapers, are harder for me to make sense of. The
commercial team at News Corp are smart, so I'm probably missing
something, but …

They look innovative, but as an effective business strategy, I'm not
so sure. The iPad is, above all, a great web browser, so any iPad news
app is competing against every site on the Web, as well as every other
app in the store. Even comparing like with like — as with the WSJ,
apps are usually a little bit nicer than websites — what distinctive
advantage does the Times app provide to me over, say, the BBC News
app, plus Twitter, plus Flipboard pointed at Pitchfork, ESPN and
Serious Eats, plus timeshifting long articles through Instapaper? Very
little. And while the Times has fine journalists covering mainstream
news, so does the BBC or CNN or the Telegraph. The Times isn't
politically distinctive, it doesn't have an instructive,
characteristic worldview, and it definitely doesn't have high-value
exclusive information I can act on. The Times' proposition is a
convenient and entertaining package of basic information on politics,
economics, news and sport. You can get that almost anywhere for free.
Therefore, the Times, alongside most other newspapers, is competing on
style, not relevance or substance.

(Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why, long term, I think the
US will wind up with around four to six newspaper-like organizations.
There are only so many styles with mass appeal and winner takes all.)

It feels like the Times is making a big, simple, bold gamble; that
there's a mass market, at least the size of their print readership,
who can wither be transitioned from print to online/tablet (without
them bleeding away to a free competitor like BBC News) or who are
neophilic enough to own an iPad yet neophobic enough to be persuaded
by a combo of the Times brand and the convenience of not having to
stop at a newsagent in the morning. The Times on iPad is the Times on
paper in techno trousers. Betting the farm on that is risking a lot on
basically cosmetic innovation. The Times doesn't have a form problem:
it has a content problem. I don't care about its content nearly enough
to pay. I didn't care enough when it was free, and now it's trying to
charge me money in a saturated market for an inferior experience.
Short of the industry bullying the legal system into creating an
artificial monopoly, I can't ever see myself paying.

Put another way, tablets are always-on, great-looking, permanently
jacked into the Internet plumbing, and you're using them to make
skeumorphic newspaper clones? When there are thousands of new, more
direct, more usable, more valuable experiences you could build using
the same technical and journalistic skills, and when you've already
established I wasn't willing to pay for your paper in the first place?

Seriously: what the hell are you thinking?

If I care enough about your content, you can give it to me on stone
tablets in cuneiform and I'll find a way to use it. If I care a bit,
I'll go where it's the right combination of easy, affordable and
reliable. (But: if you want me to pay, I'd better be making money or
having fun somehow.) If I don't care at all, there is nothing you can
do, not even really nice swipe effects, which will make me care. Come
back when you've fixed the content. Come back when you can show me a
new perspective. Come back when you make me faster or smarter. Come
back with fundamental, not cosmetic, innovation. We'll talk then.

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