Murdoch shifts from sites to ‘digitally delivered editions’

Following The Times and The Sunday Times going behind their Fortress of Solitude paywalls, Rupert Murdoch continues his new digital strategy by moving the tabloid News of the World to an online subscription model. Dominic Ponsford of the Press Gazette sums up the move nicely:

Both are examples of the fact that, for Rupert Murdoch the internet is so over. Without any inbound or outbound links, and invisible to Google and other search engines, the NotW, Times and Sunday Times don’t really have internet sites – but digitally delivered editions.

I suppose that if you’re a true, blue believer in the apps versus open web idea, I guess this makes some amount of sense.

I have a feeling that as we move forward, digital editions will actually be a bundle of apps that work on the desktop, a tablet and even on flat screens via Google TV, Apple TV and alternative set-top box software like Boxee. Two years ago, Nick Bilton at The New York Times showed Suw and I a concept of the Times’ content following you through the day. As you moved from desktop to mobile to couch, New York Times followed you seamlessly, completely enveloped you. Sure, it was content from a single site, but the ease of use meant that it was effortless, frictionless. Of course, it helps to have the depth and quality of content of the New York Times. That was compelling. That is something I would pay for, but we’re still in the early days of constructing such a vision.

When I’m feeling really generous, I might think that News International’s strategy might be a step in that direction, but mostly, I still think that Murdoch’s paywall experiments are more for News International’s benefit than a bold step to create a compelling new digital offering.

Will publishers rally to Google’s Newspass?

Matthew Buckland has a great guest post on Silicon Valley Watcher looking at Google’s Newspass payment system for publishers. (It’s cross-posted from  Buckland compares the value proposition for users with Google’s system and the system that Rupert Murdoch has instituted at The Times. He likens Newspass to a cable television subscription in which a consumer makes a one off, predictable payment to receive a package of content each month. He says:

Take the analogy of satellite TV. You pay once and you get a bouquet of hundreds of channels. The transaction is simple and easy. You know you’re getting good value for money too because there is an economy-of-scale effect at work. Now imagine another scenario: What if you have to pay individually for each TV channel and go through the effort, time and extra cost to do so. It’s a no brainer really.

Of course from the consumer’s point of view, it makes a lot more sense to pay once for a bundle of content rather than paying subs to several different providers or micro-payments for individual pieces of content. However, if newspaper groups had the rationality to think about creating value propositions for their readers, they might have spared themselves the mess that they are in.

The big question, as Matthew highlights, is whether a significant number of publishers will choose to join Newspass or create their own payment system. I’m not sure that such a payment system would be possible in all jurisdictions based on competition/anti-trust law. That notwithstanding, knowing publishers, I would expect them to lobby for a relaxation of anti-competition laws in their own countries to make such a system possible rather than partner with Google, which they have as Matthew rightly points out, a love-hate relationship with. I’d say that it’s bordering on hate-hate these days, but that’s a matter of interpretation.

Matthew sees Google as a “dispassionate third party”, but with the egos in publishing and the ‘not invented here bias’, I’m not sure that publishers see Google as dispassionate or without skin in the game. Murdoch and his lieutenants, though possible an extreme example, refer to Google as a “parasite”. For them to be pushed into partnering with the likes of Google, they would have to be pressured into seeing past their almost self-destructively hyper-competitive natures and see that some loss of advantage was worth new revenue streams. In fact, I would see them being more open to partnering with another company just in an attempt to screw Google. Despite the existential threat facing some newspapers and newspaper groups, I’m not sure that they have seen the light, by which I mean the light some reportedly see with near-death experiences.

Honesty in the age of the paywall

After months of discussion and speculation, The Times and The Sunday Times have disappeared behind a paywall or have asked their readers to pay for the journalism that they value, depending on which side of an almost religious divide you fall on. Like a lot of commentary, I find the punditry and posturing around paywalls uninformed, over-simplistic and, frequently, disingenuous.

It is often said that people paid for journalism in print so they should pay for journalism online. If ‘they’ value journalism, they should pay for it.

No. As many people have pointed out, the cover price of a newspaper really just paid for the high capital costs of printing and distributing a newspaper. To put it bluntly: People paid for the platform, not for the content.

As the OECD said in its recent survey of the newspaper industry in 30 countries:

On the cost side, costs unrelated to editorial work such as production, maintenance, administration, promotion and advertising, and distribution dominate newspaper costs. These large fixed costs make newspaper organisations more vulnerable to the downturns and less agile in reacting to the online news environment.

For every newspaper journalist who moans about how much money their publication spends on running their website, I would ask them if they know how much the outlay is for printing the newspaper. Business Insider calculated that for the cost of printing and distribution the New York Times was twice the cost of sending every single subscriber Amazon’s Kindle e-reader.

Google’s chief economist Hal Varian looked at the US industry and found that in terms of core costs, only 14% of costs as a percentage of revenue went to pay for editorial. Production costs were 52% of newspaper costs by revenue. (Varian has sourced all of his statistics from the US Statistical Abstract, the Newspaper Association of America, the Pew Foundation and academic sources.)

Newspaper revenue and the great digital divide

However, here lies the conundrum for newspapers, which commenters point out on Business Insider. For most newspapers, the printed newspaper brings in roughly 80% of their revenue. With the current revenue mix, shutting off the presses is simply not an option without dramatically cutting the editorial staff. One example of this is the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, which went online only in 2009. Hearst laid off 160 employees and retained 20 “news gatherers”. It’s not necessarily a recipe for success, with traffic declining by 20% after the shift.

Digital must and can make up more of the revenue mix at newspapers. In its report, the OECD found that “online advertising only accounted for around four per cent of total newspaper revenues in 2009, and fell strongly in 2009”. However, and this is key, the report said:

In general, the online revenues of newspapers are miniscule in comparison to total revenues and online revenues of other digital content industries.

Many will say that it’s not possible to make enough money online to replace the revenue that used to flow to print. We have traded dollars in print for pennies online, they say. This is not an iron-clad law of digital content. Yes, digital margins are lower, but many content companies make money online.

In a recent Folio profile of Justin Smith’s turnaround of The Atlantic. Smith pushed for a digital first strategy, which to many in the newspaper industry probably sounds like heresy in 2010. The simple rebuttal to that would be Smith’s record of success. The Atlantic had seen declining circulation and revenue since the 1960s. In 2010, they project a turn to profit, with digital representing 39% of their revenue mix.

Innovating on the commercial side

The problem with newspapers’ digital strategies has been that they have largely been content strategies without effective commercial strategies. For too long at too many publications, digital advertising has simply been a sweetener bundled in with the print ad sales. For too long, we have not done enough to know our audiences online, understand their needs and adjust our strategies accordingly.

Those who have succeeded online often have innovated in terms of commercial models as much as they have in content creation. Google’s main revenue engine is advertising, serving up ads to people based on what they are searching for. Without that commercial innovation, Google would not be the billion-dollar company it is today if it’s business model was based solely on undifferentiated ads supporting a search service.

Indeed, I agree with this post on ExchangeWire that the publications that will benefit the most in the future “will be able to leverage that audience to generate more revenue from targeted ads or data trading” and goes on to say:

But if they are to have a commercial future, pubs will need to be become absolutely obsessed about their data and how it can be best used to unlock new revenue.

We’ll have to re-think print and digital and the revenue streams that support journalism on those platforms. We’ll need to re-think advertising and have commercial strategies that reflect differences in audiences and in editorial approaches.

Oversimplifying an issue is something that media excels at, and now, its lack of sophistication in dealing with issues is hitting closer to home. This is not simply an issue of free versus paid, not simply an issue of jettisoning freeloaders and extracting value from those who value journalism enough to pay for it. Creating such false dichotomies makes a good column in which complex issues are transformed into black and white choices for easy consumption, but simple analyses often lead to simple and simply ineffectual solutions.

Newspapers must end their dependence on the revenue from print or face continuing decline leading for many to total collapse. The industry has been having this civil war over paid versus free. Surely, the argument should be profitable versus unsustainable? We didn’t need Murdoch to build his paywall to prove a point, we already have examples of newspapers and magazines realising that they are in the news business not just the paper business.

For those labouring in the digital side of the business, once you’re making the majority of the revenue, you’ll not just have a seat at the table, in many cases, you’ll be at the head of it. It’s achievable. It’s necessary. There is no time to waste. The future of journalism (as opposed to the future of newspapers) depends on it.