An interesting article based on quotes from a former regional newspaper editor appeared on Hold the Front Page last week. Former Leicester Mercury editor Keith Perch, now a freelance consultant and part-time journalism lecturer had come to the conclusion that readers will ultimately have to pay for journalism.
The article was based on a post Keith had put on his blog. I’m grateful HTFP wrote about it – I’ve now discovered his blog and, while not always agreeing with what he says, I think there’s a lot many journalism experts could learn about how to blog in an inclusive, multimedia way.
The post which prompted the HTFP article also stated that for news organisations to get people to pay for news, they’d have to offer up something which people valued. And there’s the big challenge.
Sadly, when articles like this are written, all too often the debate becomes about how the internet has killed the regional press, and how the regional press has inflicted most of the damage itself by giving the online content away for free.
Keith suggests that Johnston Press is losing £21 in print revenue for every £1 it is making in digital. I see that as a dangerous way of framing a discussion – it invites the ‘turn off the website’ devotees to argue the two are interlinked. Few other industries compare one revenue stream against another in the same way, instead focusing on the need to make the most out of the growing revenue stream while trying to protect the other for as long as possible.
The secret is to ensure that while protecting the one, you don’t restrict the other. Recently, a friend at another newspaper publisher told me they were considering keeping copy off the main website to ‘make people buy the e-edition.’ That’s one way to stick up a paywall – and a good way to ignore the mistakes of 2006.
What would happen if a newspaper turned off the website tomorrow? It certainly wouldn’t bring back the legions of readers who have stopped buying the newspaper in recent years. It’d hand online exclusives to rivals left, right and centre and fingers got busy keying in the stories which the paper originating the tales should really be making money from online. It might feel like an empowering way of staying in business, but it’s also the one guaranteed to end in disaster. The best-performing website I work with at the moment is also the best-performing in newspaper sales terms too.
When I look back at the sales figures of titles I worked with in 2008 and 2009 which did arbitarily hold stuff back offline, they didn’t perform any better in print than their rivals. I suppose they could argue things would have been even worse on the newspaper sales front, but that’s really no argument at all.
Instead, time should be spent focusing on the ‘Cornflake Conundrum’ – a way to look at the regional press as thought it were breakfast cereal. I won’t be the first person to use food to set out what I’m talking about, and I doubt I’ll be the last.
For over 100 years, newspapers could bundle up all manner of content and sell it to the reader, who had no choice but to pay the going rate if they wanted it. That’s like the Kellogg’s Variety Pack – a little bit of everything, which is fine, if you want a little bit of everything. Imagine Mr Kellogg’s had chosen just to sell his fine cereal that way, with no alternative.
The internet changed that. Suddenly, people could find whatever content they wanted and didn’t need the rest. All of a sudden, the Variety Pack seems less appealing when, all of a sudden you can get, for free, 500g of Cornflakes, when all you want is Cornflakes.
And it’s the phrase ‘for free’ which separates us from the cereal industry. No-one suddenly started giving away cereal for free. No-one suddenly made it possible to make your own flavour of cereal, for free, and share it among you friends. But the parallels still exist.
For every type of content – or cereal, to flog this dead horse analogy – newspapers excel at, there are now dozens of rivals also providing different variants of that cereal. Some of it’s really good, some of it is not so good. Think Special K and the cheaper Special Flakes you often find in supermarkets. So just withdrawing your 500g and telling people if they want it they’ll have to buy the variety pack won’t increase sales, it’ll just cost you audience.
There isn’t a single website in the country where a user starts with news, meanders through lifestyle and checks out sport. So why would users suddenly turn to a newspaper if its website disappeared?
And it’s also an audience which you do actually make money from every time they click on an article. Sure, it can be as low as fractions of pennies when broken down to the single page and sold through a network – the backstop position for any publisher of any size, but it’s important to dispel the myth that digital doesn’t make money. You only have to look at how much money is being spent online to realise there’s a lot of money online – the regional press just needs to get more of it.
Which is why Keith’s point about finding content people are prepared to pay for is so important. I think themes of content will emerge which people are prepared to pay for in certain formats. The newly-launched Birmingham Business Daily, which I’ve worked on with a very talented team for about six months now, is, I hope, one such example.
But generally, we work in world where people can share their news for free, and expect to read it for free. We need to make sure it’s our content they’re reading, and responding to, online. We do that by taking our content to them, encouraging them to get involved and showing that we can listen to them.
We don’t achieve it by just recreating the newspaper online, just as we shouldn’t seek to recreate TV news online just because we can do video.
The challenge for the regional Press – indeed, all printed press – is to make the Variety Pack attractive enough to make people want to continue buying it, in whatever form – e-edition, app, printed product – they wish, while at the same time catering for those who don’t need seven flavours of content alongside the one thing they’re interested in.
We don’t abandon what we know is important to readers, either. Faith in politicians is – arguably – at an all-time low, and just as editors hesitate before splashing on politics in favour of more likely newsstand sellers, websites also don’t get the same traffic to a council meeting story as they do to a transfer rumour. Steve Buttry, the digital transformation editor at Digital First Media in America, told me last year that if one the newsrooms he works with struggles to ignite interest a story they know to be important, they don’t ditch it – they find a way to make it more engaging. And that’s what we all need to do.
For the first time in the history of journalism, we have access to the reading habits of readers on a daily basis: What they’re reading online, what they’re stopping to read on e-edition, and also to what is attracting the people we want to be our readers but who currently aren’t.
It’s a huge opportunity for the regional Press, if we get it right. The key, I believe, lies in serving up content in different ways for different platforms – and that’s not done by starving one to support the other. For as long we have a print v digital discussion, we run the risk of missing that opportunity.
Update: I’ve adapted the Cornflakes parallel to better reflect some of the observations of Keith Perch (below).