Noted: UK print headwinds and growth v. revenue

As a media consultant, I am asked all of the time to point out models that actually work. I have almost always included the Financial Times in that list because they set the trend that others are trying to follow — building a reader-revenue driven digital business model. The FT was one of the early pioneers of the metered paid content model, and they have hundreds of thousands of digital subscribers. 

Now, Politico is reporting is that not even the mighty FT is immune from what most likely is the beginning of the end of print newspapers as a premium advertising platform. It might be, or it might just be a sign of Brexit uncertainty. We’ll know a lot more after 23 June. 

More worrying for the publishers in the long term is that some of the downturn is because companies are pulling out of newspapers altogether, putting their money into other formats such as the Internet and TV. The fear is: Many of those companies won’t come back.

I think in some sectors of print, they won’t come back. If they don’t come back to the FT, that would be a much darker turn for the industry and herald the beginning of final collapse of news-“papers”, at least in the Anglo-sphere.

I’m going to go out on a limb: Over the next two years, across large swathes of the English-language newspaper business, we will see widespread adoption of lower frequency printing — two or three days a week. Print will quickly become uneconomic as a platform.

Print represents the majority of the revenue for newspapers, yes, but also the majority of the cost. The economics will get ugly rapidly. The FT is lucky. It has digital revenue to fall back on, but for those newspapers that haven’t built digital businesses or other sources of revenue, the future will be bleak.

Growth v. revenue: The tension of the VC-backed model

I have to admit that I had never heard of live-streaming service Katch before Medium flagged up that a friend, Sue Llewellyn, like this post on Medium. For those of you like me, it looks like they came in second to Periscope, and I say that with no disrespect to what is obviously a small, passionate team. I do not mean to rub salt in their wounds.

In their post-mortem, something leapt out at me:

With a team as small as ours, taking the time to build out the revenue features for Katch would take away from building the growth features. When we got down to brass tacks, no matter how we ran the numbers, a premium version of Katch didn’t represent a venture-backed opportunity. 

With funding becoming more scarce, we’re entering a time where start-ups will rely much more heavily on founder, angel and seed funding. The VC’s are going to be suffering from a case of self-inflicted unicorn impalement for a while — taking the time machine back to 2002. Lots of innovation happened, but the dot.com crash was painful for a lot of people. Anyone got a fund shorting Silicon Valley real estate that they can recommend? 

Digital brain drain at British newspapers

Emily Bell left for the Guardian to become the director of a new centre for digital journalism at Columbia University, and let me congratulate her on the opportunity. Simon Waldman, described as the Guardian Media Group digital strategy chief by the Media Guardian, is leaving to join the DVD by mail service LoveFilm.

Now at the Telegraph, the Media Guardian is reporting that Will Lewis has been forced out over a disagreement with the publisher on the newspaper’s direction. What is shocking is that Lewis had just launched a new internal digital incubator just last November, the so-called Euston Project. He was named Journalist of the Year in March for the Telegraph’s scoop on the MPs’ expenses scandal last year.

My former colleague Roy Greenslade has details. It appears that Lewis wanted the Euston Project to be a standalone business and the publisher disagreed.

The media, the internet and the 2010 British election

Last night, I went to a panel discussion at the Frontline Club here in London looking at the role that the internet and social media might play in the upcoming general election. I wrote a summary of the discussion on the Guardian politics blog. As I said there, the discussion was Twitter heavy, but as Paul Staines aka Guido Fawkes of Order-order.com said, Twitter is sexy right now.

The panel was good. Staines made some excellent points including how the Conservatives were focused on Facebook rather than Twitter for campaigning. Facebook has more reach and was “less inside the politics and media bubble“, Staines said.

Alberto Nardelli of British political Twitter tracker, Tweetminster, said that the election would be decided by candidates and campaigns not things like Twitter. No one on the panel thought the internet or the parties’ social networking strategies would decide the British election. Alberto said that Twitter’s impact would be more indirect. People are sharing news stories using Twitter, which is causing stories to “trickle up” the news agenda.

Chris Condron, head of digital strategy at the Press Association, made an excellent point that so many discussions of social media focus on its impact on journalism and not its impact on people. Facebook and Twitter allow people to organise around issues, which is another form of civic participation. As I said on my blog post at the Guardian, I would have liked for the panel to explore where this organisation around issues might have an impact in marginal constituencies.

Like so many of these discussions, I thought the questions were binary and missed opportunities to explore the nuance of several issues. The moderator, Sky News political correspondent Niall Paterson implied in his questions that if social media didn’t decide the election that it had no relevance. It was an all or nothing argument that I’ve heard before. Change is rarely that absolute. In the US, the role of the internet has been developing in politics for the past decade. Few people remember that John McCain was the first candidate to raise $1m online, not in 2008 but in 2000.

Paterson portrays himself as a social media sceptic, and I can appreciate that. I can appreciate taking a contrarian position for the sake of debate. However, some of his points last night came off as being ill-informed. The panel was good in correcting him, but he often strayed from moderating the discussion to filibustering.

His portrayal of the Obama campaign was simplistic. Alberto said at the Frontline Club that Obama had a campaign of top down and bottom up, grass-roots campaigning, and as British political analyst Anthony Painter pointed out, Obama’s campaign was a highly integrated mix of traditional campaigning, internet campaigning and mobile. (Little coverage focused on Obama’s innovative mobile phone efforts. Most people don’t see the US as a particularly innovative place in terms of mobile, but it was one of the more sophisticated uses of mobile phones in political campaigning I’m aware of.) I love how Anthony puts it, Obama’s operation was “an insurgent campaign that was utterly professional”.

Paterson also implied that Twitter would tie journalists to desks. The only thing tying journalists to desks are outdated working methods. I’ve been using mobile data for more than a decade to stay in the field close to stories. During the 2008 election in the US, my Nokia multimedia phone was my main newsgathering tool. It allowed me to aggregate the best stories via Twitter and use Twitpic to upload pictures from my 4000 mile roadtrip and from the celebrations outside the White House on election night. As I said on Twitter during the discussion:

moderator makes assumption that social media chains journalists to desk. Ever use a mobile phone? It’s mobile!

Sigh. Sometimes I feel like a broken record. Technology should be liberating for journalists, and more journalists should be exploring the opportunities provided by mobile phones and services like Twitpic, Qik, Bambuser and AudioBoo.

You can watch the entire discussion from the Frontline Club here, and here is Anthony Painter’s excellent presentation on the state of internet campaigning in the US and the UK:

Only 5% of UK readers willing to pay for online news

As I wrote in my post from earlier today, I didn’t know if the statistics from the American Press Institute about paid content held up for the UK market. As if on cue, paidContent.co.uk (owned by the folks who pay my bills at the Guardian) have commissioned a survey in the UK by Harris Interactive that track very closely with the US numbers. According to the figures from API, a 2009 Belden survey in the US found that if content was no longer available for free on a newspaper website that 68% of respondents would turn to “other local Internet sites.” The Harris survey in the UK found even worse figures: 74% would turn to another free website.

Robert Andrews at paidContent.co.uk has a thorough run-down of the numbers and looks at age, demographics and geographical differences in the data. One thing that leapt out at me is that London had the highest figures for those willing to pay if their favourite news site began charging, but even in the media capital of the UK, a scant 17% would be willing to open up their pocketbooks.

Another statistic that I found interesting is that 16-24 year-olds were much more willing to pay than any other age group. It’s still not a high percentage, 13%, but it is much higher than the 1-2% of anyone over 35. Is that because younger age groups value the internet as an information source more or because they are more accustomed to paying for content online or on their mobile phones? The survey doesn’t answer these questions although it might be contained in user interviews that are not discussed in the post.

I am sure that people on both sides of the paid content debate will look at these figures and find in them data that supports their position. However, it is difficult to use these numbers to posit a case where paid content online becomes a major source or revenue that will replace the declining revenue in the traditional print business.

Journalists! Go check out the projects from Rewired State

I had Rewired State in my calendar for months because it was happening in the Guardian’s new offices, but a rather full schedule in 2009 and over-subscription of the event itself prevented me from making it. What was Rewired State?

Government isn’t very good at computers.
They spend millions to produce mediocre websites, hide away really useful public information and generally get it wrong. Which is a shame.

Calling all people who make things. We’re going to show them how it’s done.

My good friend and former colleague at the BBC, Chris Vallance, came to the tail end of the event, and he was said that the projects sparked a lot of ideas, many of the ideas that would make great journalism.

Voxpomp was one that caught my eye immediately. The idea is simple: “Statements made by MPs during Parliamentary debate cross-referenced with news stories of the time.” You can search by subject and member of parliament in a very simple interface. There is another project that allows people to log when and where they have been stopped under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This is code in progress, but it’s definitely an interesting idea. Foafcorp is an SVG visualisation that shows links between companies and their directors using UK Companies House Data. Here is an explanation from the developer.

The full list of projects are now available online.

That’s the good. However, how many of you had heard about the event? I wish that the organisers had done better outreach or publicity before the event. It was an obvious success because organisers told me that they had 300 applications and only space enough for 100 people so they had to ration the invites. However, the media and technology journalists at the Guardian didn’t even know about this event, even though it was happening in our building. Charles Arthur, or editor of Technology Guardian and driving force behind the Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign, hadn’t heard about it. The only reason that I knew about it is because I work closely with our development teams who were involved with it. I only received a very brief press release (frankly a one page email) from organisers on the Friday before the event. If Guardian journalists didn’t know about it, how many other journalists had heard about it until after the fact? 

I popped my head right near the end because I was meeting Chris. Suw and I saw a number of familiar faces from the Open Rights Group, MySociety and government and technology circles we know.

I know that this is a hackday and the purpose was to create new applications with public data and wasn’t necessarily concerned with making a big splash in traditional media, and I’m definitely not trying to imply that you needed journalists there to validate the project. But I think this was an important event, and I’m concerned that apart from a the participants and their followers on Twitter and a few folks who happened to find out about it,that very few people outside of those circles knew about it. I’m not even finding many blog posts about it.

Guys, you did something really good. It’s OK to let a few more people know about it. I know that organising an event takes a lot of work, and publicity might be the last thing on your to-do list. But there were some great projects that a much wider audience could easily understand. Underselling your work will make it difficult to convince the government that open data with better formats is an imporant agenda item with so many other pressing issues at the moment.