Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Are newspapers yesterday's news?

The Times

Bob Dylan once wrote (in 1964 to be precise), “The Times, they are a changin’.” It’s a nice lyric and more importantly, for the purposes of this post, it would make for a great headline if you were writing an article about the newspaper industry.

In recent times the Times (which started out in 1785 as The Daily Universal Register) has embraced change in an effort to invigorate its ailing business model. The first move was to print a non-broadsheet version of the paper. Some people, presumably those that still wear bowler hats, were outraged by such a move. Why would you want a format that was straightforward to read, especially on the daily commute, plainly a ridiculous idea to those that like their papers big and unwieldy. I’ve got to say that I like the new format, although you’d still want the broadsheet version if you wanted to improvise a baton for clearing a path through your fellow commuters to get to the front of the taxi queue.

Most recently the Times has started charging for the online version of their paper and are also creating a version specifically for the iPad, which incidentally would also make a good device for battering competitors in a race for the taxi queue. Maybe the broadsheeters (as we’ll refer to them), will jump onto the iPad format when they realise this?

Of course this move has created more than a ripple in the industry. It has prompted the Guardian to do the opposite and open-source their online content. The early signs aren’t good for the Times, a reported 15,000 people have signed up to the opening offer of 30 days access for £1 – that’s not a great audience for a viable advertising platform. The iPad version is £9.99 for a month, and has (in the same report) achieved 12,500 subscribers so far, but then again, the iPad owners are fighting off post-purchase dissonance and will pay for anything that makes their iPad purchase seem like a good idea. (I'm not saying iPads are not a good idea by the way!)

All of the above begs the question, where do the newspapers go from here?

Gone are the days when people bought newspapers to find out what’s going on in the world, save for a few News of the World exclusives about Fergie selling her soul. Nowadays, if you want to find out what’s happening, then the first port of call is the Internet. You can even create your own newspaper by pulling together content from various sources to create your very own paper which covers the areas you are interested in.

It seems that the role of newspapers is increasingly to offer a professional commentary on current affairs and to offer a different angle and more in-depth analysis than what you’ll get on the TV. It’s pretty bleak really as far as the newspapers are concerned and it’s also pretty bleak in terms of the quality of reporting which we’ll get in the future as newspapers cut back their staff and budgets.

Let me just say, I have no idea what the answer is for newspapers. I don’t think that The Times has got it right, but I do admire their attempt to monetise their online business. The papers have always made their money from advertising. The equation was quite simple – increase readership and you can increase advertising revenues. So, the Times are doing exactly the opposite to what has been the model since 1785, but then again they’ve never faced a challenge like this before.

What about the Guardian‘s move to open-source their online content? On the face of it, this strategy is just giving away news for free, but if you remember the old equation, what they are doing is growing their readership. I think that the Guardian’s approach is the more likely to succeed, but for that to happen they need to offer a pretty elegant and intelligent platform for advertisers alongside their content. The Guardian’s online paper gets a lot of plaudits for its design and layout. The content is as left-wing as the paper equivalent though, so if that’s not to your taste then you are left with the Telegraph as your right-wing alternative.

I think the Times is likely to do some damage to its business by its bold move. I suspect that the 135,000 readers who read the free version of the Times and didn’t sign-up for the paid-for version haven’t just stopped reading the news. I would even be so bold as to say that a large chunk of the readers have gone to the Telegraph and some even, heaven forbid, to the Guardian. The ramifications to the country of the Times’ decision are probably already haunting David Cameron and his team.

The upside of all of this is that Mr Murdoch, who could do with the occasional bloody nose, is getting one as the revenues at the Times take a bit of a battering, so there is always some solace to be had in any piece of news if you know where to look for it. Just don’t go looking for it on the Times online newspaper unless you are willing to cough up some cash.

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