What can the news industry learn from the Meerkats?

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Rupert Murdoch tells the world that Google should pay for the content it accesses from his websites. Google responds by saying it isn’t in the business of producing content, it’s just there to help people find it. And then the debate continues about who needs who more:  Do newspaper websites need Google to get an audience more than Google needs newspaper websites to satisfy the desire of its users to find content which is of interest to them?

Google News has always struck me as the online version of the world’s best newspaper A-board.

Rather than a busy sub-editor rushing through a dozen or so bills on the stories s/he thinks will grab the interest of the passer by, with no guarantee any will make it on to the board, stick a decent story online and you’re pretty much guaranteed a showing in Google News results for searches which share words with those in your article.

Of course, the downside is that whereas your average newspaper probably only has to compete with two or three rival A boards outside the newsagent, on t’web you’re up against potentially thousands of rivals. Which is where the murky world of SEO comes into play.

One of the arguments critics of Murdoch throw back at him when he has a pop at Google is “If you hate it so much, it’s very easy to get Google to stop crawling your site, why don’t you do that?” The answer, at first, seems obvious: you don’t want to lose the traffic.

But what if we compared the news industry to the insurance market – in other words, what if this post was inspired by meerkats?

One one hand, we have websites such as Compare the Market (you do your own impressions of the meerkats here, ok?), and MoneySupermarket which promise to find us the best deal on car/house/travel insurance and so on. Several quick clicks and you have the best deal, right?

Sort of. Because over at Direct Line, they boast about not being on such websites. And although they are part of RBS, the bank that nearly collapsed, they seem quite a successful division. Presumably, people realise they can only get their quote from Direct Line and go to them. And, presumably, Direct Line offer something appealing which the others don’t – be it a low price, extras thrown in or whatever.

So what if a newspaper was to take the same approach online and remove itself from online search, so that the only way users could find the content would be to go to the site, or via RSS.

There might be a thousand and one stories out there about Leeds United, but who will do it in as much depth or with the same insight as the Yorkshire Evening Post? Yes, there’s the BBC in the room, but does their coverage really compare with that of the local newspaper?

Then there’s news. Who else covers Leeds in the same depth as the Yorkshire Evening Post? Again, the BBC are there – but their handful of stories a day don’t really compete with the YEP. There are hyperlocal operators in the region, I assume (including the Guardian from next year) but are they in the same market as the YEP? For the person who wants good coverage of news, in depth, from across Leeds, a hyperlocal wouldn’t in all cases be the solution.

What would happen then? Well, if you use Direct Line as an example, should we expect the users to seek out the information? If they didn’t, what would happen? Would it perhaps force the newspaper involved to look again at its news agenda, and deliver content which more suited an online audience?

Of course, comparing the newspaper industry to the insurance industry isn’t that simple – although the way the industries have changed could be compared. 40 years ago, you bought your insurance from a salesman at your door. That in turn gave way to speaking to someone over the phone and now it’s done online, mainly. In some respects, something similar has happened in the relationship between journalist and punter.

Direct Line, to go back to them again, obviously offer something which keeps the punters coming back without the obvious signpost of insurance search sites. Their relationship with the punter is different to that of a newspaper to punter – the insurer only hopes to hear from the punter once a year;  newspapers online want to see the audience every day, so the offer needs to be so compelling that they’ll come back every day.

But Direct Line would much rather they dealt with a small number of people who actually paid for their service, rather than a much larger group who at best “might” pay for them. Does the same apply online for news too? Do big numbers really mean anything?

Crack that and you’ve probably cracked the “will people pay for content online” argument too – that if you offer something that’s good enough, and important enough, to people that they can’t live without it, and can’t find it anywhere else to the same depth and quality, then yes, they will pay for it.

But, unlike the Meerkats, this is probably too simple an argument to put forward. I’m inclined to put in the “random thoughts from a long train journey” box of ideas but still, I hope it’s food for thought

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