Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Are reports of the death of newspapers greatly exaggerated?

Today on Radio New Zealand National at 11:05 I talk about the Internet and the death of newspapers – is this real or is it just another request for corporate welfare?

You can read on for my speaking notes, or after about 11:30 today you can download the audio as ogg or mp3.

Q: Death of newspapers – this is being talked about a lot! Is it a real problem?

A: It’s a bit broader than just newspaper. The context here is how existing media are dealing with the arrival of the Internet. One of the things the Internet does is make it really, really, cheap to publish things. You don’t need a printing press, a radio transmitter or a TV studio to put material where it can be reached by a potentially huge audience.

Q: But what quality is most Internet content?

A: Very variable, of course. Some of it’s excellent, a lot is patchy, and large amount of it is utter drivel. But one man’s drivel is another’s perfection. PT Barnum that “no-one ever went broke underestimating the public taste” – which is pretty cynical but most of us would find it to have a ring of truth.

The Internet is a publishing medium among other things, and that is making us realize that creating quality content can be done separately from owning a printing press, or a TV station. It often isn’t done well, but sometimes it is.

Q: How do you pay the journalists if you can’t charge for newspapers?

A: The subscription price of newspapers has been only some of the income for media companies. Newspapers make a fair bit off advertising, and that has declined steeply recently. That advertising fall-off is what has put the immediate financial pressure on the newspapers.

And some media aren’t advertising funded in the first place. Public service broadcasters like Radio New Zealand or the BBC are generally funded off taxation.

Q: The BBC is funded by a TV licence fee.

A: Yes, it’s odd that an organisation with a multiple radio stations is funded by people who own TVs. In fact, the TV licence in Britain is one amount for a colour TV and a lesser amount for a black and white one. And you get a discount if you are blind. But you still support the BBC radio stations, for which you don’t pay at all if you don’t have a TV. And if you have a TV but only ever watch ITV – you still support the Beeb. It’s a curious system.

Anyway, there’s a lot of doom and gloom about the health of newspapers. And I’m not convinced that newspapers can survive in their current form. But the problem isn’t, as some media moguls would like you to believe, that people want free stuff. The problem is that printing and shipping bits of paper is much more expensive than putting stuff on the web. And, that the web is more immediate.

Q: Stories can go online as soon as they break

A: Quite. With Twitter feeds and RSS a news website can be faster even than broadcast media in getting stories out there. A well-run news website can do a lot, lot more to inform and entertain than a once-a-day delivery of paper. The challenge is to find a way to make the commercials work.

Q: Can that model pay the journalists and the editorial staff?

A: That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? But there are some encouraging signs. Here in New Zealand, Stuff – which as I’m sure everyone knows is Fairfax’s main news delivery website – is doing very nicely, thank you. It derives a lot of income from advertising revenue on the site, which has been going up in leaps and bounds just as the advertising in print media has been tanking. Are we spotting a pattern here?

Q: Is it paying for itself?

A: Apparently. More than, I think. I spoke to Stephen Smith who is head of Stuff. He told me how Fairfax has been continuing to develop Stuff as a channel in its own right. Stuff has its own editorial team, and they take material from the newsrooms around the whole country. It’s seen as very successful. It’s now got a mobile version of itself as well which looks better on iPhones, and that’s getting a lot of traffic.

Stuff and the other news websites do more than papers. They allow big documents, sound files and videos to be posted, and they also provide a platform for reader comments. That’s turning into a large part of the news sites. It’s a kind of online ‘letters to the editor’, but it’s so much more immediate.

Q: Classified ads have pretty much gone

A: Haven’t they? Trademe has pretty much wiped those out. That’s presumably why Fairfax bought Trademe a few years ago – we laughed at the time, but you can see why they would do that. APN, the company behind The Herald, was trying to start a competitor site but I’m not sure that went anywhere. Trademe has a huge first mover advantage.

Another factor is Google. We mentioned a few weeks ago that Rupert Murdoch and others were blasting Google for, as they see it, stealing their content. What Google does is put a list of stories from all kinds of media with an automatically-generated one-sentence summary. Murdoch claims that’s theft, but he knows he could stop it instantly by locking Google out of his websites. Really, Murdoch’s raging is code for: “we think Google should give us money but we don’t have a better excuse”. Stuff’s perspective is that they want to get their stories into Google because it drives traffic to their site.

When newspapers originally went online, lots of them required you to purchase a subscription to see their websites. Very people did buy the subscriptions, but then as some papers started throwing their content open, all the others were pretty much forced to. It’s only a few niche publications – like The Economist and The Wall Street Journal that can get away with a paid subscription model today. But many newspaper execs overseas are grumbling and threatening to re-impose a subscription model. Frankly, I’d like to see them try – I expect it would dry up traffic to their site, and the associated advertising revenue, immediately. The other thing it would is prevent people linking to their stories – some papers think they should be paid for that as well, but that’s just not how the web works.

There’s another interesting angle to Stuff. It was originally put together using a commercial content management system. It outgrew that a few years ago, and it’s been rebuilt using open source software by a local New Zealand company, Catalyst IT. That’s the same approach as Radio New Zealand has taken for its own website and web publishing system. It’s cheap and flexible.


Why newspapers shouldn’t lock down Internet stories.

Time Magazine asks whether computer nerds can save journalism

posted by colin at 7:13 pm  

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