Friday, 29 May 2009

Are newspapers dead?

In today’s online world, information is available both for free and seemingly limitlessly. So how do newspapers survive? Are they just another dinosaur?

The book "Blown to Bits" explains the dynamics involved with traditional versus new (online) channels. This is the idea of richness and reach. Richness is about the quality of the product and the consumer's experience of it. Reach is about how easy and effective it is to reach a wide and large consumer audience.

Newspapers traditionally had better richness than the online channel because in the early days of the Web multimedia was not possible due to the fact that most consumers had slow links (54kbps modems!) they also had better reach because online penetration was small. However penetration has increased and so has bandwidth, so newspapers found themselves assailed in both dimensions. Under such circumstances it is inevitable that they will die away (in not necessarily die out completely). The only way they can succeed is to regain ground in one, and preferably both dimensions.

Newspaper reach

How can newspapers have a better reach than online? Virtually impossible. The only channel with greater penetration is TV, and in that arena they’d be competing with the BBCs and CNNs. The best they can hope for is parity by adopting the online channel. And of course all of the mainstream newspapers have done so: here in the UK that includes everything from The Sun through to the Guardian, and I guess it’s similar elsewhere. But news online is free so they may be able to gain the reach, but they’ve lost the revenue stream.

Newspaper richness

So that leaves richness. The only hope for getting any revenue from online is to either offer a product that consumers want to pay for, or where advertising or similar revenue can be generated. So what can they offer in terms of richness that other online presences cannot or do not? Ironically, I think it’s print! People still like to read stuff in print. So the printed newspaper should be seen as an add on to the online mainstream presence.

Idea 1: Customised newspapers

I’m a Guardian reader. I go online to the Guardian site (or look at my RSS feeds) and pick the articles and items I want to read. But I don’t have time to read everything I want to, or read them at the depth I want to. So why not offer a premium service where I can select those items I’d like to “take away and read later”? This would be a customised newspaper with just the stuff I want in it. The problem here is printing it and getting it to me – there wouldn’t be the volume to make printing and distribution worthwhile, but it could be done via local agencies (how about news agents?) – you pay for your customised paper online and get a token. You email it to your local newsagent, and they print it out for you. You collect it on your way home, or they deliver it as part of the newspaper round.

Idea 2: Added value

The second model – and not mutually exclusive from the first – is to have an added value print product available for people to subscribe to. For example a newspaper could create something that had regular items by leading writers which don’t appear online (just teasers of them), plus in depth analyses of current issues (the economic crisis with analysis by financial, economic and political experts), etc. This could be produced perhaps weekly (as in Sunday supplements), and for those who subscribe, they are printed and sent to their homes – either using the locally based model described above, or more centrally (because maybe there’d be high enough volume to support it).

If there’s anyone from a newspaper who reads this, and you adopt the idea, and it works: please remember where you got it from!

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