News organisations need to focus on customer data as mobile payments take off

With a number of new and updated products announced, Tim Cook looked to make Apple his own just shy of three years since Steve Jobs death, and while much of the focus has been on the Apple watch, to me the most interesting part of the event was mobile payments. I instantly started thinking about how mobile payments would affect the business of journalism. 

Alan Mutter updated a post he wrote on how mobile payments could revolutionise commerce, including the commercial world of journalism. For me, these four paragraphs are key:

Although the outlook (for mobile payments) is unclear, there can be no question that mobile payments will revolutionise marketing by creating an ocean of real-time, granular and precise consumer data.

This matters to publishers and broadcasters, because it means that marketers in the future probably will vector ever more of their advertising dollars into direct connections with consumers, instead of mass media. …

Because rich data – not mass audiences – will be the name of the game in the future, every local media company should be gathering as much data as possible about every household and individual in the community it serves.

The most immediate opportunities to do this are through newsletter programs, contests, site registration and smart mobile apps. Obviously, all of these tactics require close attention to government and corporate privacy policies.

We live in a world of data. Data really is the new oil, and while the challenges for news organisations are myriad, data – and not just in terms of storytelling – is increasingly important. The organisations that master data will be the master of their own destiny, and for news organisations, this might be one of the best last opportunities to retake the initiative. 

The iPad and mobile: ‘How does information relate to movement?’

Last year, days after I took a buyout from The Guardian, I wrote a fun little rant about publishers and their delusional approach to the iPad. Since then Suw and I have bought an iPad and have tried out a number of apps, and one of those apps was The Daily.

The shortcomings of the interface and the app have been well covered. (The Daily, now with 20% more crash-tastic badness.) However, rather than focus on the poor interface or lousy execution, I’d like to focus on the bland content, something you don’t usually get to say about Murdoch content. You can say a lot of things about Fox or The Sun but you can rarely criticise Rupe for making boring content, until now. I’m from the US. I read a lot of news about home, as any expat does, but for the life of me, I don’t understand why I should care about 95% of the stuff that I have read in The Daily. It’s like a crappy CD-ROM version of USAToday on a day when they’ve given the staff writers the day off and have all the interns write about their pet issues. The Daily: The publication that doesn’t know what it is, and in digital content (or any content for that matter), meh never wins.

Michael Wolff, who is no fan of Murdoch, has a scathing piece in Adweek that raises the question of just how long the mogul will support The Daily.

Is The Daily the Heaven’s Gate of mobile? Not just expensive, but inexplicable. Not just a bomb, but an albatross.

Ranting aside though, Wolff points out something really key, thinking of the iPad as a mobile device:

Meanwhile, the mobile form expands and grows, driven by a basic question that most publishers have seemingly not asked: How does information relate to movement?

Moreover, how does the iPad relate to real-time information or time-shifted but frequently updated information? One of my favourite apps on the iPad is the FT. The ability to easily shift from live to downloaded content is amazingly functional. It is so useful that it has driven my use of the FT. In the couple of weeks that I used The Daily, neither the information or the format did anything for me. I’d rather have the more traditional site paradigm and the simple yet elegant functionality of the FT iPad app than the rather showy and useless interface candy of The Daily.

Publishers have rarely thought about how the web and now mobile change how information is consumed. They have a product that they want to sell, and they only see the web and mobile as different containers to sell it in. They don’t think much about how those platforms change the way we relate to information. It’s as if we were still in the early 1950s, producing radio programmes with pictures for TV. What is frustrating for those of us who have been doing this for a while – since the mid-1990s for me – is that we know how to tell stories on the web. We know how digital and mobile change ways that stories can be told.

That said, I’m actually quite optimistic. The iPad has renewed interest in novel digital story telling and design, and I’m even more enthusiastic about HTML5 which opens up all kinds of possibilities for not only the iPad but the desktop, smart TVs and other new devices. However, it’s going to take some digital thinking rather than thinking that sees digital as just another vehicle for print.

Paid content: Real scarcity versus artificial scarcity

Mathew Ingram at the Nieman Journalism Lab has an excellent post looking at the issues of paid content in general and micro-payments in particular. It’s a really useful post because he rounds up quite a number of posts and points of view on the subject. One thing really leapt out at me. Mathew writes:

Does that mean newspapers can’t make any money? Not at all. I think Mike Masnick has done a great job of pointing out how a media business can make money even if it gives content away for free — his company Techdirt does it, plenty of musicians and artists do it. And they do it by using the free content to promote the aspects of their business that have *real* scarcity rather than artificial scarcity.

After the Great Recession, news organisations are all seeking news sources of revenue and a more diversified revenue base so that we’re not as dependent on one highly recession-sensitive revenue stream, advertising.

As we look for new revenue streams, journalists need to get real about what adds value and need to be brutally honest about real scarcity. Currently, too much of the paid content discussion is obsessing over the societal value of journalism and not about rebuilding a revenue bundle that supports the socially valuable work that we do. Non-niche news has always been subsidised by other content and revenue streams. It is not dirty and it doesn’t devalue the social mission of journalism to think in terms of what other services and products we will need to develop to support that social mission. I’m more than happy for lifestyle news and food blogs to pay for investigations and bread-and-butter daily journalism. In many ways, it’s the simple recognition that our audiences are interested in many things, not just hard news.

Last week, speaking at the Norwegian Online News Association annual meeting, one of the points made by my fellow panelists was that news organisations have created a lot of innovative editorial projects but not many innovative commercial products. There are a lot of opportunities for news organisations to develop niche news and information products, but we best move quickly. Niche sites and services have already set up a dominant presence in many key content verticals. We also best move quickly on developing mobile apps, desktop apps and other tools to distribute our content and allow for easy recommendation. Steve Outing, for one, sees a lot of possibilities in mobile news and information services. What possibilities do you see to help pay for the social mission of journalism?