Tag Archives: death of print

Should media owners ditch journalism altogether?

An interesting piece from Fast Company examines the idea that media owners such as the New York Times and AOL can tap into a “local-advertising pot of gold” by turning over their content infrastructure to hyper-local content producers.

The New York Times launched a hyperlocal community offering – called The Local – in March. Its aim is to mop up the kind of local advertising revenue that would otherwise pay for corner shop window advertising cards – small individual revenues that build up to a hefty total. In theory.

It’s a nice idea. And I’m a big fan of the hyperlocal idea. But I do wonder if the hyperlocal, blog-it-yourself model of self-publishing is at all compatible with the “professional” journalism, top-down hierarchy of traditional media organisations.

Aside from the fact that, according to Fast Company, advertisers don’t seem that keen to fund hyperlocal content, I think the big problem will be cultural.

For example, as part of its move into community publishing, the New York Times is toying with the idea of licensing its local web platform to local content producers.

“Our hypothesis,” [Jim] Schachter [editor of digital initiatives] explains, “is that there is a swath of people — experts of various sorts, journalists, self-trained bloggers — who would want our assistance in professionalizing their work and who would love to be associated with the Times. We could help those people mobilize their communities and gather local-advertising dollars in extremely low-cost ways. That could work, economically, for these local journalism entrepreneurs, and, at scale, it might work for us.”

In effect, that means opening up its online blogging platforms and other content management architecture to user-generated content of various kinds.

But what status will such content have? If it is to come under the brand umbrella of the New York Times, as Fast Company notes, surely it will have to go through the same editorial process. That’s not cheap.

And the paper would have to decide if it wants to beef up its editorial team to ensure the user-generated material is high-enough quality, or spread its team more thinly and accept a dilution of standards generally. Given that news organisations are finding it hard to afford to generate their own content, the former seems unlikely.

There is a cost implication of providing all this infrastructure, too. Any organisation will need to keep employing programmers and web developers. And while bandwidth and storage are relatively cheap, they’re not free.

I wonder if the logical extrapolation is for some media owners to give over their entire infrastructure to hyper-local content producers and stop producing their own content.

Old-style “professional journalism” is taking a hammering – and I don’t think it can survive in its present form. Certainly not at its present scale.

So maybe news organisations should get into content infrastructure instead – in effect acting as vanity publishers for ordinary folks. In effect, the New York Times would act as a kind of WordPress or Flickr, or even YouTube, but with the cachet of the Times brand.

The trouble is that it would mean cutting out what it used to exist to do – providing journalism. And without that, its brand would cease to have much meaning.

And of course we already have WordPress, Flickr and YouTube doing the same job perfectly well (though not necessarily making much money). So it might be difficult to gain enough market presence to make it a solid business model.

It’s a conundrum. To make hyperlocal, user-generated content work, media organisations have to spend more. But the revenues are not necessarily there to pay for it. It’s a circle I can’t really see being squared any time soon.

[HT: Evolving Newsroom via Soilman]

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Where’s the advertising going? Facebook, apparently

Need a job in the media? It seems Facebook is the place to go, as founder Mark Zuckerberg aims to double the company’s headcount to 2,000

Of course, you’ll need to be an engineer or programmer, rather than, say, a journalist, which is the problem when advertising deserts its traditional media home for that new-fangled social networking thingy. 

Revenues are up 70% over last year, and the company seems to be doing well pulling in brand advertising that would otherwise go to media such as TV or magazines. (I know, I know. Facebook still isn’t making a profit. But it is sitting on a pile of cash and isn’t burning through it so fast.) 

The problem for those of us toiling in the media anthill is that Facebook’s content is created by its users, not by professional writers and editors. 

Not great news for those trying to develop a viable paid online model

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Why the advertising model for funding print publishing is broken

Following his recent comments on Freelance Unbound, Martin Cloake has a nice post here on the changing dynamics of magazine publishing. 

His thesis (roughly) is that saturation in the market forced down individual title readerships, while a fixation on keeping advertisers happy made magazines so bland that this readership deserted the sector in droves. It’s not tah interweebs what done it – so we can still retrieve the situation with better quality product.

I’d certainly agree with much of this – although I have to stand up for the disruptive technology argument again. 

This time the technology was desktop publishing (DTP), which opened up the print magazine world in the late 1980s and early 1990s to many new entrants and was a big factor in the market saturation that Martin cites. 

Can we go back to a mass readership for magazines, so that newsstand sales and subscriptions pay our publication costs – including decent salaries for journalists?

I think the odds are against it, purely because of over-supply versus shrinking demand. And remember, reading as a leisure pursuit is under threat from a whole range of new content types and formats – from gaming to social networking. Whether we can keep younger potential customers on board is a big question…

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Lessons from the superheroes: Marvel comics and mass media

There’s quite a bit of activity in the comment threads again today, as we wrestle with issues such as why newspapers (and TV) are struggling in the internet age.

Martin Cloake makes some interesting points about the women’s mass market sector, which he says relies on cheap production, high sales and relatively few advertisements to make its money. 

There’s an interesting near(ish) parallel with another publishing sector – American superhero comics. 

I read these avidly as a pre-teenager – so avidly, in fact, that I would even devour the publishing details in the indicia, and the regular panel of distribution and sales information that would appear at the back detailing how many copies were printed, distributed, sold and returned. Yes, I had a sad, geeky childhood.

But these figures were, and are, very illuminating. I remember comics like the Fantastic Four printing some 450,000 copies in the late 1960s or early 1970s, with about half those being sold and the rest returned. 

The comics themselves were garishly printed on cheap stock, and were filled with advertisements for the kind of products you could only buy  in the US – sea monkeys, x-ray glasses and money-printing machines. How my heart ached to buy them. What disappointment I avoided.

They were also cheap to buy – 5 shiny new pence at first, rising to about 12p as sterling fell steadily against the dollar in the early 1970s. And they were sold through newsagents and sweet shops – all bundled together in little piles or, if you were really lucky, in a spin rack of their own. Though not in my north London parish. 

How things changed. Hammered by TV and suffering from quality issues, sales fell steadily. Crucially, as discussed at some length by Chris Tolworthy in his very informative Enter The Story site, slim margins on comics meant they were sidelined by retail outlets, which could get a much better return from glossy magazines. 

The result was the comics publishers were forced to distribute through specialist comic shops, catering to a niche collector audience. Sales figures went down generally, though this was masked for a while by a speculative boom, which saw collectible issues selling multiple copies to collectors. 

The numbers are interesting. Chris Tolworthy says:

In 1979 a typical comic sold 100,000 copies, and much more ten years earlier. But today, 20,000 is common, and comics only survive because they make extra sales in trade paperback compilations.

I don’t have the specific numbers myself, but his sound reasonable from what I’ve heard. And a lot of small press and independent self-publishers have given up publishing regular monthly comics in place of graphic novels that have a much longer shelf life. (I don’t know about the margins, but I suspect they’d be higher, too.)

No – it’s not an exact parallel. But exchange newspapers for comic books and you have some indication of where they might be headed.

First – your mass market will erode to a niche market. With much less available advertising, newspapers will have to become much more expensive.

Second, like comics, you may see them less often, as they may well not be able to publish every day. That’s already happening in the US as papers give up some of their daily editions

But most troubling, big publishers such as Marvel and DC Comics simply wouldn’t survive if they relied on revenue from comic sales. Marvel went bankrupt in the 1990s and is only thriving now because its characters are used in blockbuster movies such as Iron Man. In similar fashion, DC is now owned by entertainment giant Time Warner, which can also spin out comic characters into movies (Dark Knight, Watchmen) and merchandise. 

The disadvantage of newspapers in all this? I’m not sure fanboys will be rushing to collect mint editions of the Independent‘s August 24 issue. Nor will film studios rush to option the media section of the Guardian for a summer blockbuster…

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Why newspapers (and TV) are struggling in the internet age

The news that Gap has scrapped TV ads for social media should come as no surprise. And it’s bad news for those who think that the media’s focus should be on getting readers to pay for online content.

The internet makes it easy for anyone to become a publisher of traditional-style media content at virtually no cost, which puts more pressure on media owners.

But it also makes it easy for brands to bypass traditional content vehicles altogether, and interact directly with consumers.

In the Gap’s case, this does mean still using existing channels – cinema, print and outdoor ads – to drive consumers to a Facebook page. But that ad spend will be shrinking. And even if brands still need to reach consumers via advertising – whether online or offline – that advertising won’t necessarily be going to newspapers or newspaper web sites.

Instead, brands can place ads into games, social media sites and Twitter streams, and reach their target audience through a whole range of niche interest web sites (some of which they might set up themselves).

And don’t forget the increasing importance of live events in this. The effect of digital reproduction of music on the music industry has been to reduce the importance of the music track and increase the importance of the live relationship between music act and audience.

This effect will also play out in newspapers and magazines. People will stop seeing printed magazines as being as culturally important as they have been. Instead, I predict, they will respond better to brands that interact with them in the real world.

So look for brands doing more live sponsorship and field marketing activity at the expense of plain old visual advertising.

A lot of the debate about whether or not newspapers will survive hinges on getting readers to pay for content – whether online or off.

But actually, single copy purchases and subscriptions have never been the core of newspaper revenues – that honour goes to advertising. And it’s the fact that advertisers are deserting newspapers in droves that has pushed the industry on to its knees.

Unless we can find a way to key advertisers paying for newspapers (and magazines, and television), there’s really no escape from the decline of printed news media. And it means that the traditional, resource-hungry newspaper web site is also in trouble.

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So farewell then, The London Paper…

Quite a few journalism bloggers have noted the news that London free evening paper The London Paper is to close

It’s not the one I would have picked. I always found it had significantly higher distribution – at about three-to-one against rival London Lite, so I figured it would crowd out its rival. But then I guess that would obviously have raised the costs significantly for owner News International at the same time. 

A while ago I did note in passing that I thought there’d be some attrition in the freebie press, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise – though to be honest I’d got so used to seeing it on the train that I thought of it as a bit of a fixture.

Also of some interest is the fact that, of the two free evenings, The London Paper is noticeably less trashy. London Lite is just that – not much more than celebrity photos and some gossip. The London Paper at least had pretensions to being a real newspaper. And  I did find its microblogging coverage of the London Mayoral elections last year surprisingly useful. 

Which all goes to show that readers don’t seem to be that interested in printed newspapers either – even when they’re free. Not sure how that’ll play for online news.

[HT Jon Slattery et al]

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Yet another model to make online news pay

Thanks to Jessica for sending me the link to the new Journalism Online website – home of an effort to create a syndicate of paid-for newspaper content on the web. 

This is the organisation that apparently has 170 daily papers on board already, though it hasn’t actually got around to telling us which ones they are.

It also features a page of quotes from sundry media sources under the banner “Why readers will pay for online news”.

None of these quotes is from a reader. I’m just saying…

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