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, (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 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.

Newspapers: A message from users in 68-foot tall flaming numbers

As the great paid content debate of 2009 has played out, we’ve had a lot of assertions about what users should pay for without much clarity about what they would pay for or much about their habits. My gut feeling is that users will pay for certain types of content but that it will be extremely difficult to simply monetise existing content or attempt to create false scarcity by putting all content behind a paywall and drive readers back to print.

As a journalist who has chosen to make the internet my primary medium, my gut and quite a bit of my experience tells me that while I may be an early adopter, readers are moving more toward my habits than staying with or moving to print habits. However, I’m very careful not to generalise without data. My friends are all part of what I often refer to as the global geek collective. Our habits are our own and we shouldn’t assume that those habits are common to our audiences.

This week, however, new data appeared that made me feel slightly less like an outlier. The American Press Institute released the results of a survey of 2,400 news executives in the US. The event was invitation only, but Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism released the 80-slide presentation. It is a treasure trove of data and journalism bloggers have been slowing dissecting the data and the methodology all week.

Steve Outing highlighted a statistic that should give news executives and journalists pause. As Steve points out:

…the graphic shows that 75% of newspaper execs believe that if their content were no longer available on their website, online users would foremost turn to the print edition of the newspaper. Meanwhile, only 30% of online news users said they would turn to the print edition in such a case; the No. 1 choice (at 68% of respondents to a 2009 Belden survey) was to look to “other local Internet sites.”

Steve comes to the conclusion that “newspaper leaders remain delusional”. I might be a wee bit more generous and say that this is a clear message from users to newspaper owners in the US. However, not to put too fine of a point on it: This is a radical disconnect between the assumptions of publishers and the views of people who might have formerly been their audience.

Would the results be the same in the UK or other markets? I’d love to know. Suw and I often bemoan the lack of basic media research in the UK. In the US, the Pew Centers for the Internet and American Life and for the People and the Press do excellent basic research on internet usage patterns, attitudes towards the press and other media issues. The UK could really benefit from similar research.

Returning to the API-commissioned survey, the bloggers at Harvard’s Nieman Lab did an excellent job pulling out key bits of data from the survey.

Again, there is much food for thought. It’s important to note that the API commissioned the survey in the context of the meeting billed as the “Newsmedia Economic Action Plan Conference”, wherein the US newspaper industry tried to buy a clue as to how to survive the recession and rebuild a viable, sustainable business. Of course, Steve Brill and Co at Journalism Online have offered themselves up as the key to the glorious future of paid content online. They were one of several companies that provided proposals to publishers at the event.

Zach Seward provides this caveat about one of the companies responsible for the API survey, ITZ Publishing:

You’ll also want to apply a helping of salt because ITZ Publishing consults for Steve Brill’s pay-for-news firm Journalism Online, which just touted the results as an “API study” without noting its business interest.

The ‘frequency challenge’

The survey highlighted, yet again, what Steve Yelvington has been pointing to for years: The challenge of frequency for news websites.

In nearly all markets, newspaper websites receive 2.5 visits and 10 pageviews for each unique visitor.

Steve’s frequency challenge is this: High monthly (or even daily running average) unique figures for many websites obscure the fact that most of these visitors come infrequently and look at only a few pages. This is one of the reasons why, despite record numbers of visitors to news websites, it is proving difficult to translate this traffic into revenue. The recession and subsequent collapse in online and offline advertising is a slightly separate, but deadly, issue for news organisations.

As the survey found, the 2.5 visits and 10 pageviews a month figure is a pretty consistent figure across the industry. It’s grim, but it really highlights the amount of drive-by visitors coming to news sites via search engines and the high level of long tail activity on most news sites. The head of the tail is about 25% of readership, what the survey calls “core loyalists”. The survey found:

“Core loyalists,” who visit a newspaper 2-3 times a day for 20 days a month, comprise 25% of unique visitors. Not surprisingly, then, core loyalists account for 86% of pageviews and are “overwhelmingly local.”

Steve Outing’s and Zach Seward’s posts and Bill Densmore’s liveblog of the event are well worth reading for more context.

I’d like to see more demographic information about core loyalists. How old are they? Are they heavily weighted in older age groups? Is there evidence that these core loyalists are being replaced by readers over 30? Assuming that core loyalists are older – and there is evidence to support this – should newspapers focus on older readers? Unfortunately, we have good data that says that older readers aren’t being replaced. Focusing on a declining group of older readers is not a long-term strategy and it begs the question: Can news organisations provide compelling services that re-engage younger readers online or offline? Furthermore, if most of these services are digital, not an unrealistic assumption, can they build a business around these services?

The concept of ‘core audience’ as outlined in this study is difficult to translate to the British market because UK newspapers with national circulation don’t really have a loyal local audience unless one considers their London base as local. However, regardless of whether this data is relevant to the UK market, the pain being felt by newspapers, especially regional newspapers in the UK, is similar if not worse.

I’m still digesting these figures. I would say that they reinforce one of the points made by the Internet Manifesto out of Germany that has been making the rounds and some waves: “12. Tradition is not a business model.” As any journalist who gets out of the media bubble knows, the sense of importance, relevance and audience loyalty often expressed in the boardrooms of many news organisations is such happy talk that you have to wonder what’s in the tea and biscuits.

Reconnecting with audiences

Many of us have known for quite a while the problems that this survey flags up. Paid content advocates like Brill & Co will read into this that their promise to get 10% of online news audiences to pay for some kinds of content is achievable. However, this masks serious long term issues for news organisations. Our audiences are shrinking. They aren’t being replaced and while we have business-threatening short term economic issues we will have to quickly pivot to deal with these long term issues.

The biggest long term problem most news organisations have is declining trust and relevance. I have to agree with Michael Skoler, writing in the autumn edition of Nieman Reports.

Journalists are truth-tellers. But I think most of us have been lying to ourselves. … The news became less local and less relevant, and reporters became less connected to their communities. Surveys show a steep drop in public trust in journalism occurring during the past 25 years. … The truth is the Internet didn’t steal the audience. We lost it. Today fewer people are systematically reading our papers and tuning into our news programs for a simple reason—many people don’t feel we serve them anymore. We are, literally, out of touch.

One important step that we need to take to rebuild our businesses is to rebuild our relationship with our audiences. This is why I embraced blogging as a journalist and have continued to embrace more recent forms of social media. I saw an opportunity to improve my journalism and, by opening up to a conversation with our audiences, I saw an opportunity to reconnect with audiences and build a sense of loyalty. It is why I stress when I speak to journalists and editors that it is a mistake to believe that social media is fundamentally a technical problem for news organisations. I’ve seen excellent technical solutions that still fail because journalists won’t engage with their audiences. More journalists will need to take responsibility for rehabilitating this relationship. It’s not just about building a personal brand. It is more importantly about rebuilding trust. Without that, the economic solutions are meaningless short-term fixes.

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links for 2009-09-17

Detailed discussion of NPR re-design process

I’m a big believer in sharing stories about success, failures and even things that are in process. No one has the corner on good ideas, and often opening up the process can help get a wider view. No one has a perfect process, and often, we’re dealing with similar issues. It can feel a bit like the corporate version of group therapy, but it can be very useful, if for no other reason as a means of catharsis. Unfortunately, this happens rarely because most people maintain a relatively narrow view of competitive advantage.

Fortunately, AIGA, a professional design association, has written a detailed overview about the National Public Radio site redesign process. It’s invaluable for anyone looking to redesign and re-architect a news website. It speaks to goals, thinking and process.

They worked with Schematic to “provide the initial visual design and information architecture”. (Disclosure: Suw and I are friends with Dale Herigstad, the chief creative officer of Schematic and Jason Brush, the EVP of User Experience Design with the company. We’ve had the good fortune of swapping ideas with them over dinner, or in Jason’s case, also over blueberry pancakes before I started my US election trip last autumn.)

This post steps you through the entire process from goals to completion. Like many sites, NPR was working with a 6-yeard-old content management system and wanted to update the CMS and the design. My employer, the Guardian, did something similar recently.

One of the things I noticed from the write-up:

(NPR) had two editorial producers embedded in our group for the duration of the project. Their feedback was invaluable in helping us design a system that met the needs of our news teams.

I think this is important, but I would also suggest that journalists are involved in any process to choose or develop a CMS. As an online journalist for more than a decade, the CMS is either the enabler or the roadblock to efficient work. One of the reasons that I’ve been a big advocate of blogging tools is that they are faster and easier not just for the technically proficient but also for the novice. If your CMS trims even just 10 minutes off of every story a journalist writes or produces, that adds up to days over the course of a year. Clumsy tools take time away from creating compelling stories.

NPR also shifted to an Agile development process. That is a major challenge, and we at the Guardian also use Agile. I’m not going to go into the details of Agile here, but Suw and I have long thought that Agile is good for platform level projects like site redesign but not best suited for day-to-day editorial development.

However, in this review, I’d highlight one of the lessons NPR learned that relates not simply to Agile development but to wider issues of major projects like a site redesign:

Each one of us also had to be open-minded and empathetic. When conflicts arose over how best to solve a problem, it was imperative to remember that in the end, we were all working toward the same goal.

The article is well worth reading and digesting. I’m sure that people who have been through this process will see quite a few points they recognise, but this is an invaluable exercise in openness by NPR. It might not prevent you from facing the same or similar challenges, but at least you’ll know you’re not alone. Moreover, when conflicts arise, remember the real competition is down the street rather than down the hall.

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links for 2009-09-15

  • Kevin: This project has been running for a while, but like many Google projects, it was running quietly. Suw used it to help a friend move a blog from Google's blogger to WordPress. Now, Google has taken the raps off of it. It really builds on the idea of data portability, which got quite a bit of notice a few years back but since then has gone a little quite. The Data Liberation Front, a group of Google Chicago engineers, has been working on a data liberation product. "What does product liberation look like? Said simply, a liberated product is one which has built-in features that make it easy (and free) to remove your data from the product in the event that you'd like to take it elsewhere."
  • Kevin: Jim Gaines constructs an extended metaphor about newspaper reporters and the decline of their business. He says about reporters: "I feel bad for you. You didn’t do anything wrong. You were great. And to watch you stare at death, unable to see your way up and over to storytelling heaven, where paper, ink and distribution are free, is in fact exquisitely painful."
    I disagree with him. Some had their heads focused on work, and journalism is consuming work. However, many more have actively resisted change for more than a decade. Many have and continue to heap scorn on digital journalists. Journalists do have some responsibility in the decline of their business.
    I will agree with him. The road is plainly marked, but it has been for more than a decade. I can appreciate his sentiment to try to encourage reporters to take advantage of this plain path ahead of them. However, had more chosen to take the path when times were easier, we wouldn't be suffering now that times are very hard.
  • Kevin: This is a really interesting bit of data about trust in the press in the US, but I wonder if it's not reflecting an increase in partisanship over the past 15 years in US politics as much as it is reflecting in a decline in trust. It's worth reading the partisan press section of the report. I think trust has declined, and partisanship is only a part of it. Without trust and credibility, it will add to newspapers woes as they struggle with business issues during the recession.
  • Kevin: The team building the DocumentCloud, a hosting system for news organisations to process and host documents, has released something very interesting, the CloudCrowd, "a heavy-duty system for document processing". They have detailed explanation of how it works, and they have released the code on GitHub. If you're processing documents, this is definitely something to investigate.
  • Kevin: Mindy McAdams looks at the New York Times' map of water polluters. Mindy has written a book about Flash and journalism so she knows what she's talking about when she says:
    "Producing this kind of data graphic requires three personnel assets:

    * Expert reporters
    * Data integration expertise
    * Flash graphic expertise

    The New York Times might be the last newspaper in North America that has all three."

  • Kevin: The New York Times does an excellent visualisation of water pollution violations in the US as part of a large series on the subject. It's well done and allows people to see polluters near them either on a map or using zip (postal) codes.
  • Kevin: "Heaping criticism and scorn on media companies has worked well for Mike Masnick, operator of the popular blog Techdirt. Masnick is the firey commentator who blasts copyright owners and anyone else he believes has failed to accept that in the Digital Age most of the control now rests with consumers. He strongly maintains, however, that there are still ways for entertainers, artists, and journalists to make money. They just have to be developed." He's now working on experiments of whether content creators can make money by giving away content and seeking to generate revenue via alternate revenue streams.
    "Instead of charging for his posts, Masnick offers fans a range of other items or services to purchase, such as a Techdirt T-shirt, spending a day with Masnick, or access to his stories before they're posted."
  • Kevin: Alan Mutter highlights a survey for the American Press Institute that found: "A bare 51% of the newspaper publishers in the United States believe they can charge successfully for access to their interactive content, according to a survey released today. The other 49% of publishers either fear that pay walls will fail or just aren’t sure." And Mutter concludes: "While the success of launching a pay solution would seem to require a fairly broad and concerted approach among not only newspapers but also other news outlets, the survey shows little common ground among even newspapers as to how to proceed."
  • Kevin: "Today, the New York-based company is launching the transmedia property about an epic battle between science and nature, between sci-fi and fantasy. It starts as both a free-to-play online battle game, where you can start for free but have to pay for upgrades, and a kids’ comic book in the Japanese manga tradition (see image below of Dragons Vs. Robots: Blade Guardian). A live action film is under way in collaboration with Jinks/Cohen Productions, makers of the film American Beauty. Over time, the company also expects to produce novels, animated web videos, toys and more."
  • Kevin: Frédéric Filloux, editor for the Norwegian group Schibsted, gives a good roundup of the revenue picture for US newspapers and also some of the proposals for paid content including Brill's Journalism Online. He looks at some of the key components of a "modern paid-for system for news sites". The comments express a lot of cynicism about readers paying for news. I would echo the questions from John Einar Sandvand in the comments: "So what are the content areas and ways of packaging the content that makes it possible to charge online? What are the attractive premium products news sites can develop in the digital world?"

links for 2009-09-11

  • Kevin: "Without any fanfare, Google has launched a new resource called "Google Internet Stats" which brings together industry facts and insights from across five different industries." It looks like a product being trialled in the UK. Very useful if you're looking for UK/European internet industry stats. Still wish that we had a Pew Center for Internet for the UK.
  • Kevin: Suw and I watched President Barack Obama's address to students in the United States, and one of the applause lines for Suw was when he said: "you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time". Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures talks about he has learned this lesson in his own life. He talks about the hard lessons he learned in the crash. Often when we succeed, we don't take away lessons that help us repeat that success, but if we fail and learn, we can make sure that even if we fail again, it won't be for the same reasons.

links for 2009-09-10

  • Kevin: Jason Fry writes: "I’ve written before about the possibility of a new compact: one in which journalists are “micro-brands” within the paper, tackling the expanded duties of chatting and shooting video and beatblogging (and thus creating new contexts for attracting and keeping readers) in return for a higher public profile and some portable brand equity. But that’s just half of it: Papers also have to face the reality that not only established but also new writers will want to pursue outside opportunities, whether their goal is to make more money, build their brands or just scratch a creative itch."

    In some ways, I see and understand some of the ethical issues. On another level, this really grates. Big name writers have always operated as media properties unto themselves. Why is it right for them but not less established writers?

  • Kevin: "Ten private companies, a number of US Government Federal Agencies primarily in the Health sector and the OpenID and Information Card Foundations will announce this morning in Washington DC the launch of a pilot program to allow members of the public to log in to participating government websites with their credentials from approved independent websites. "
  • Kevin: "With journalists being laid off in droves, ideologues have stepped forward to provide the “reporting” that feeds the 24-hour news cycle. The collapse of journalism means that the quest for information has been superseded by the quest for ammunition. A case-study of our post-journalistic age."

    This is an interesting piece showing how vested political interests seed the mainstream media with stories. The only point in which I might disagree with it is that this is not a product of blogs and the internet age. This has been going on for years with various political groups trying to spin the media. This effort might be aided by politically active bloggers, but it's not new. Basically, this is crowd-sourced opposition research. It's an old practice with a bit of a new twist.

Visualisation for news and community discovery

I think that visualisations and interface innovation hold great untapped potential for journalism, not only helping journalists and audiences to see trends and understand complex sets of data but also as a tool that will dramatically improve news site usability. The last few years have seen a lot of innovation in visualising data with the advent of mash-ups and easier visualisation tools from Google, Many Eyes from IBM, etc., but there has been too little interface innovation for news websites.

By and large, news websites still reflect their print heritage. They make the classic mistake of rigidly reflecting their own structure while ignoring the semantic connections that cross desks and departments. Most news web site interfaces obscure the vast amounts of information we produce as journalists. Good interfaces go beyond design and search to issues of information architecture, user experience and discovery.

I believe that interface innovation can unlock the power of technologies, helping them break out of a small group of technically adept early adopters to a much wider audience. The Windows-Icon-Mouse-Pointer interface helped open up computers to a much wider audience than when command line interfaces were dominant. The graphical web browser helped unleash the power of the world wide web. In 1990, when I first used the internet, I had to learn arcane Unix commands to even read my e-mail. In August 1993, I used the seminal web browser Mosaic for the first time in a student computer lab at the University of Illinois, where I was studying journalism and where that groundbreaking browser was created. I instantly realised that the web browser would become a point-and-click window to a world of information, communications and connection.

I’ve been interested in interface innovation since the late 1990s when I first saw the Visual Thesaurus from a company then called Plumb Design, now called Thinkmap which showed the connections between related words. The company did even more impressive work for Sony Music and EMPLive, an online exhibition for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project. In many ways, the work was way ahead of its time and sometimes ahead of the capability of the internet. The projects used advanced interface concepts more often found in CD-ROM projects of the day than the internet. One of the things that impressed me about especially the EMPLive project was that it allowed virtual visitors to the navigate the music collection a number of ways, whether they were interested in time, genre or a particular artist. The presentation also showed relationships between elements in the collection. I like Robin Good’s description on the Master New Media blog of Plumb Design’s work:

The original goal at Plumb Design was to create dynamic interfaces to information systems that reveal interrelationships often obscured by conventional methods of navigation and information display.

In many ways, Plumb Design showed what was possible with data, semantic analysis and rich interfaces more than a decade ago.

While interface innovation has not been an area of focus for most news sites, thankfully we’re seeing some tentative steps forward after a crash period of stagnation. Slate has launched a service called News Dots. Chris Wilson describes it like this:

Like Kevin Bacon’s co-stars, topics in the news are all connected by degrees of separation. To examine how every story fits together, News Dots visualizes the most recent topics in the news as a giant social network. Subjects—represented by the circles below—are connected to one another if they appear together in at least two stories, and the size of the dot is proportional to the total number of times the subject is mentioned.

Like EMPLive and the Visual Thesaurus, News Dots helps show the interconnection between stories. The feature uses Calais, “a service from Thompson Reuters that automatically “tags” content with all the important keywords: people, places, companies, topics, and so forth”. Slate has built its own visualisation tool using the open-source ActionScript library called Flare.
Slate's News Dot project
It’s a good first stab, but Slate admits that it is a work in progress. I like that the visualisation clearly links to articles and sourcing information. I like that the dots are colour-coded to show whether the dot represents a person, place, group, company or ‘other’. I think there might be a possibility to better show the correlation between the tags, but as I said, this is a good launch with a lot of possibility for improvement and experimentation.

Another project that I think shows the potential of improved interfaces is the Washington Post’s visual commenting system called WebCom. As Patrick Thornton explains, it is a visual representation of comments n the site. As new comments are posted the web expands. Those comments rated highly by other commenters or those that spur the most responses appear larger in the web. The web not only allows for navigation and discovery, but users can comment directly from within the visual web interface.

Thornton says:

The commenting system was built in two weeks by two developers at A front-end developer worked on the user interface, while a back-end developer created the database and commenting framework in Django. Because the user interface was built in one language — Flash’s ActionScript 3 — and the back-end in another, the Post can take this technology and put it on different parts of with different user interfaces.

Wow, that’s impressive in terms of turnaround time. Django is quickly becoming an essential tool for the rapid development of journalism projects.

Thornton points out that it doesn’t work on mobile browsers or older computers. I might quibble with the focus on most popular comments or comments that spur the most response; comments that draw the most responses can often be the most inflammatory or intemperate. Likewise, popularity often becomes self-reinforcing, especially when it drives discoverability as it does in an interface like this. I would suggest that a slider that weights other factors might be useful. A simple search or tagging system might help commenters to find threads in the discussion that interest them. Again, this is a good first attempt and, with the development time only taking a few weeks, it shows how rapidly innovations like this can built and tested in the real world.

It’s exciting to see these kinds of developments. News organisations are struggling during the Great Recession, but often these times of crisis spur us to try things that we might otherwise think too risky. Whatever the motivation, it’s good to see this kind of innovation. If this can happen during the worst downturn in memory, just think what we can do when the recession eases.