Sips from the Firehose


Aug 28

This week in the paid content debate: Aug. 24-28


Posted: under Digital Migration, new media, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
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This week’s debate is not as acrimonious as in the past (although there are exceptions to that, of course), and in the wake of the biz models released by the Aspen conference, some people are taking building new revenue streams seriously.  At least, they say they are.  It turns out that a lot of what has been reported in this paid content debate is a little like Microsoft software releases: trial balloon “vaporware.”

Page design at Rue89.com looks a little like what splatters on the side of the carny Tilt-a-Whirl after you load it up with a buncha 10-years olds who've spent the day eating cotton candy and mystery meat hotdogs.

Page design at Rue89.com looks a little like what splatters on the side of the carny Tilt-a-Whirl after you load it up with a buncha 10-years olds who've spent the day eating cotton candy and mystery meat hotdogs. I think the boxes up & down the sides are supposed to be clickable ads, but they were inert when I tried them... (click for larger)

The illustration here is of a new French news site that is apparently taking off at Rue89; I can’t decide whether the chaotic design is totally off-putting, or intriguing because it basically violates every rule of page design.  Also, I can’t hear the word “Rue” in a title without flashing to “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Or some B-movie villain twirling a moustache and chortling, “You’ll rue the day, Rex Manly!”

As a bonus, this week I’ve broadened the focus a bit to include some big-picture thinking from some of the unusual suspects; Doc Searls has a post wherein it is posited that what we think of right now as the internet is just a finger pointing in the direction of what this thing is actually going to grow into.  Which should fuel a couple of late-night dorm-room debates, if nothing else…

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Aug 16

Paid Content, Paywalls, the Link Economy and Mark Cuban’s Waistline


Posted: under Digital Migration, New Marketing, new media, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
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In which I get very “Meta” and write a blog post that aggregates other blog posts that were written about aggregation.

I am also posting this over on the AIM Group blog, as part of what I think might become a regular feature, “This week in the paid content debate.” The best of the bunch is the back-and-forth between billionaire Mark Cuban, and the bete noire of many print publishers, Michael Wolff, who runs the Newser.com content-aggregation site.  Cuban actually suggests something that shows that he’s put more thinking into the issue than the kneejerk “Up with the paywalls!” bunch.  I note below the flaw in his plans – my ex-roommate used to describe for me in detail how impossible it was at Time-Warner-AOL to get the jealous VPs of Home Video, say, to play nice with the guys from HBO and pay-per-view. Why make someone else’s P&L sheets look good? That just means they are going to get the Exec VP slot faster than you…

This is an example of a newspaper that has developed multiple, reliable, alternative revenue streams. UOL in Brazil is doing quite well, thank you. They planned ahead, unlike so many complacent U.S. papers.

This is an example of a newspaper that has developed multiple, reliable, alternative revenue streams. UOL in Brazil is doing quite well, thank you. They planned ahead, unlike so many complacent U.S. papers.(Click for larger)

Anyway, the discussion in all cases gets heated very quickly. Insults are thrown around, fisking takes place in the comment threads, but a few actual new ideas & fact-based analyses sneak in here and there. The fact that some very smart entrepreneurs are actually interested enough to toss in some innovative thinking is rather heartening, actually.

  • Mark Cuban gives some free advice to fellow billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch: http://blogmaverick.com/2009/08/08/my-advice-to-fox-myspace-on-selling-content-yes-you-can/ Basically, he advances the idea that to get consumers to pay for news, you have to bundle it up with other goods, services and content that exist within giant organizations such as Fox or Time-Warner. A “Newsjunkie” subscription would come with access to special sections of Fox News, a couple of books from HarperCollins, magazine subscriptions and DVDs of 20th Century Fox movies.  Commenters point out that such “synergies” remain elusive in these big media conglomerates, as each of the divisions is still in its own silo, with its own P&L, jealously guarding its own turf. Cuban paid special attention to aggregators, suggesting that newspapers ban links from aggregators such as Michael Wolff’s Newser.com.
  • Michael Wolff responds with a post entitled “Mark Cuban is a Big Fat Idiot” http://www.newser.com/off-the-grid/post/237/mark-cuban-is-a-big-fat-idiotmdash3bnews-will-stay-free.html Highlights include “some people” finding Cuban bumptious, arrogant and rich only through a dot-com fluke. Wolff maintains that news will always be free and ad-supported, and suggests that Cuban must be “smoking something” …
  • …leading to Mark Cuban responding with a schoolyard-taunt opus: I’m Rubber, You’re Glue http://blogmaverick.com/2009/08/12/to-michael-wolf-im-rubber-youre-glue/ Not sure what it means when the discussion over paywalls degenerates so quickly, even amongst intelligent and successful publishers.  Apparently, Cuban takes umbrage to Wolff calling him a “big fat idiot,” and in turn, taunts Wolff by criticizing his “outdated model” of a site.
  • The fallacy of the Link economy: http://paidcontent.org/article/419-the-fallacy-of-the-link-economy/ This is another assault on the value of inbound links from Google and other news aggregation sites.  Arnon Mishkin says that even sites that publish a headline and short description of a news story appearing on another site are destructive, because readers mostly skim stories, and therefore get the news content they need without having to click through. No word from him on what he thinks newspapers should do on newsstands – perhaps they should be like old-school porn magazines, in plain brown wrappers.
  • Ken Ellis responds on NP-Harder: http://npharder.wordpress.com/2009/08/14/the-fallacies-of-arnon-mishkin/He picks apart some of the assumptions as to what constitutes value from links, and concludes, “All that being said, I still agree in principle with his final three points.  However reclaiming value from aggregators isn’t going to help publishers much.  They need subscribers and a pay wall.  Not an iron curtain, but a permeable pay wall along the lines of the Wall Street Journal.  There’s no save-my-business-model pot of gold out there in the hands of aggregators to help you pay for all that good journalism.”
  • TechCrunch proclaims “The Media Bundle is Dead,” http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/08/16/the-media-bundle-is-dead-long-live-the-news-aggregators/ Erick Schonfeld addresses paid content by claiming that back when newspapers still enjoyed local monopolies on news, “80 percent of the stories in the paper sucked,” but that the audience was still forced to buy the paper because there was no alternative.  Kind of like the argument that the music industry has failed because people are no longer willing to pay $15 for a CD that contains one song they like, and 9 others that are crummy.
  • Five Key Reasons Newspapers Are Failing: http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/five-key-reasons-why-newspapers-are-failingOnly the first point really addresses paid content, but the suggestions at the end of the piece on how to transform a newspaper into a web-based news operation that will produce the type of content that readers will actually reach into their wallets and pay for – is very instructive.
  • A post drawing an interesting parallel between Microsoft’s dilemma on how to compete with Google’s free Open Office product, while still maintaining its huge profits from its own MS Office suite http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2009/08/future-of-local-news-about-more-than-paid-content225.html
  • A rather scathing piece on how Reuters should take advantage of the AP’s “suicide” http://techdirt.com/articles/20090724/1533155652.shtml
  • From “Scooping the News” a post entitled: Newspaper Access Fees Destined for Failure: http://www.scoopingthenews.com/2009/08/newspaper-access-fees-destined-for.html He compares the paywall solutions to pop-up ads.  He lists five points that he claims explain why access fees will not generate that much revenue. Basically, the argument against boils down to the “internet readers are used to getting information for free, and they have lots of alternatives, so they’ll never pony up when newspapers start slamming down the paywalls.”
  • Steve Outing gets psychological in explaining what changes to user behavior will have to take place before consumers start paying for news: http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/columns/stopthepresses_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003997955
  • And finally, another piece about how raising the paywall will “kill the buzz” around quality content, pointing out that even print newspapers get shared, picked up, discussed in the pub and curated. http://23musings.com/2009/08/15/raise-the-paywall-stop-linking-kill-the-buzz/

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May 15

Micropayments and Unintended Consequences: See LUN in Santiago, Chile


Posted: under Digital Migration, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Over at The Digitalists, the question of “What would micropayments mean for journalists?” was raised.

Well, there are two schools of thought to this.  The first is the one that was espoused there:

What exactly do these people think that newspaper execs will do with
data showing exactly how profitable every single article is? Just sit
on that information? Or will they use it to make business decisions
about which departments, types of articles and individual journalists
are delivering the most ROI? “Sorry, Woodward, we know you won the
Pulitzer last year, but your articles only generated $97.85 in revenue,
so we’re going to have to let you go.” Of course, it wouldn’t just
influence the executives. Journalists themselves would start shading
their stories to what sells, and the most successful would be the ones
who were the best salespeople (or who knew the most tricks). Get ready
for a lot less zoning-board recaps and a lot more “Top 10 Sexual
Positions.”

You can see one example of this over at the Santiago, Chile daily Las Ultimas Noticias, where the publisher started to let the tail wag the dog — that is, the stories that garnered the most clicks on the website would be the ones given the biggest play in the paper edition the next day.

Also, the stories that got lots of attention would lead to follow-ups. The upshot of this was that the coverage did start to resemble a deranged issue of Maxim magazine.

Business news? “Picture of Women Executives Working Out & Getting Sweaty”

Political news? “Vote on Whether Japanese Women Have Cute Butts.”

Religious news? “Priest Develops the ‘Catholic Kama Sutra.”

…and so on.

But before everyone starts jumping on the already-crowded “I Told You So” train, LUN was always a bit of a downmarket paper.  They were #8 out of 8 daily newspapers in Santiago, Chile.  So their core, and the people they attracted with their marketing blitz, were readers that were not already dedicated to the bigger papers, such as El Mercurio and La Tercera.

And yes, LUN did vault from last to first, and a big part of this was the aggressive strategy.

But since then, LUN has been branching out in its coverage; they no longer have T&A on every page.  They have the core audience of what the British call “Lager Louts” or “Yobbos,” but they are branching out to include more technical content that appeals to the same young webheads that come for the biscuit shots.

And for the editors and reporters who fear that switching over to a reader-driven basis for content is going to lead to endless pages of bikini shots and [fill in the anatomical blank] slips … well there are plenty of sites dedicated to that kind of content already.

The users have the power, you see, to go to wherever it is that we want to go to, to find the kind of pictures/video/stories that we want.

If all there were on the web was imitations of Maxim-meets-Ogrish, that would be unbelievably boring after a while.

And as we’ve seen with OhMyNews, even when users are allowed to pick their perfect, tailored mix of stories and information, after a while, we kinda want someone (read: an editor/blogger/”curator”) to surprise us.

We want to see things from outside the bubble.  Well, most of us do. Some people will gleefully sustain themselves on a steady diet of mental Twinkies, and never get tired of them.  Never mind them. They were never your readers anyway.

I think that the recent political campaign and the economic meltdown have hammered home to a generation of news consumers that it’s kind of a good idea to pull our heads away from whatever dingbat thing Paris & Britney did this week, to see what it is that our elected officials are doing with our money … and how they’re funneling it to the equally dingbat financiers and bankers that bribe them.

So yeah, maybe there will be a bit of a blip when the micropayment model is implemented.  But it will shake itself out.

If you believe that all your audience wants is cheezcake … well, aren’t you saying then that your audience is a bunch of pervert dimwits?

To quote Frank Sinatra (as filtered through the late genius Phil Hartman): “Contempt for the audience! That’s what killed Dennis Day’s career!”

UPDATE: Over at The Editor’s Weblog, the debate over charging for online content has attracted comment from industry experts Jeff Jarvis and Rob Curley, as well as Agustin Edwards, the editor/managing director of LUN, speaking at the INMA World Congress:

In terms of charging for content, both Jarvis and Edwards are wholly in agreement. Jarvis is of the opinion that it is now more valuable to build audience – “I think the odds of success in charging now are slim to none”. Edwards echoes his sentiments, with his belief that “if we charged for content on the internet our traffic would go down significantly… It’s abandoning the trust in the advertising as a financial model.”

Well, that trust has been strained recently, and it is only going to get worse, unfortunately.  The continued soft economy is going to put some severe downward pressure on ad revenues, at least for the next nine months. The best news that I’ve seen today came out of the LA Times – a small article about how the bottom-feeders are out snarfing up low-priced houses in the Phoenix area (which was pretty much the most overinflated area in the U.S. when it came to the housing bubble).  If this holds up over the next couple of months, that would mean that a lot of the “frustrated money” that’s been sitting on the sidelines is going to start getting back into the game.

Again: I do think that there is a place for charging for content online.  But that model necessitates a radical change in how the news business does/would operate, one that makes shutting off the presses and moving only to web distribution look positively timid by comparison.  I’ve worked at magazines that were almost all circulation supported. The key to survival is that you have to have something that the consumers can get nowhere else.

Perhaps I’ll write more about my experiences in this vein in a post later this week.  It might be helpful for those considering this kind of a move.

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