Why content will free and newspaper brands must change

By November 29, 2010News

There is a good piece in the Guardian today on why the iPad might not save newspapers (thanks to Paul Miller for the pointer).  This passage from near the end of the article is perhaps the best description of modern attitudes to news that I’ve seen:

It’s … easy to jump from one news source to another, because digital has fundamentally changed people’s relationship with printed news sources. Once, a newspaper was not just a source of information, but a statement of identity, where most buyers would not dream of picking up a competing title. Now, in an era where identities are altogether more protean, and when any app can disappear from view at a single touch, it is not obvious that people will simply sit down and spend 20 minutes engaged in silent contemplation over a single title. It’s not how the modern mind works.

The key point here is that we now read news to source information, not to confirm identity, which means the source is only important as to it’s integrity (and maybe sympathy with our politics) and switching costs are much lower – meaning there is less point in paying for content.

The implication for news brands is that they should cultivate a reputation for integrity rather than think of themselves as destination sites.  The upside from this approach is that the brand is then more powerful for driving revenues from alternative activities like conferences, and maybe commerce.

The other reason for making content free is that people are then able to share links with their friends, making them more likely to read it in the first place and also helping to propagate the brand.

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  • Good point, Nic (and thanks for the mention).

    I wonder if there’s an opportunity for the market’s larger players to reposition without cannibalising all of their ‘news’ revenue, in order to reinstate the role of their brands as signifiers of identity? Identity, belonging, and projection of values/beliefs/wealth/style surely matter to most individuals at least as much as they ever did?

    We’re still Grauniad readers, Torygraph readers, or Daily Moron readers; we just don’t have to PAY in order to be so… and those media properties haven’t added enough additional value to persuade enough people to remain faithful with their wallets. If I no longer want to pay for today’s paper, what WILL I regularly pay for that brand to give me… and is that worth enough to keep them profitable? Which brand attributes do I want to project, and which media properties align with those in mutually beneficial fashion?

    In principle, at least, the synthetic reflection from weeklies like the Economist should become more valuable in an environment where the basic facts are freely available from anyone… but they need to find far better ways to let their readers inject that insight back into the flow. The Economist’s new iPad app was convenient enough (for me) to make me reinstate my subscription… but it’s definitely a read-only experience. I have absolutely no way to wrap those brand attributes around my online persona, to share, or to do the Economist’s advertising for them… Surely a remarkable oversight, and a missed opportunity?

  • I think going forward we are inevitably going to source our news from multiple providers, making it difficult for news providers to sell us identity. It is interesting to think where we will go for that now – and providers of analysis like the Economist might have a role. You are right that they will have to find ways to let us broadcast that in the same way as we used to leave our newspapers on our desk – they are struggling between allowing people to share and wanting a paywall though.

  • in terms of sourcing news from multiple providers, I absolutely agree. I’d be very interested to see some stats, though, to understand the extent to which people go back to their preferred source when projecting?

    Say, for example, that you tweet a story from the Daily Mail that discusses a topic I’m interested in. I’m keen to pass the nugget along, but don’t want to associate with that brand, so go to the Guardian or the BBC or wherever *in a deliberate and directed search for the story.* Having found it, I then post out to *my* followers with a BBC or Guardian link and – hopefully – a hat tip to you.

    In truth, I don’t think I’ve ever done this… but I wonder if people *do*… or could be persuaded to by their preferred brands?

  • While I agree that traditional publishers current excitement over the iPad is shortsighted. And that digital content reaches a far broader/diverse audience than the physical counterpart. Does relying on conferences limit themselves to a comparatively small scale operation and that commerce would depend on them leveraging themselves as a destination site the very thing you argue against?

    Personally I see content splitting down two paths. The realtime, sensational and optimised bite sized reporting (The Huffington Posts and to a extent the TechCrunch’s of this world).

    The second path is much more focused on quality opinion in a longer ultimately adds more value to the reader. The FT and The Economist prove this to some extent.

    In new media world I will be interested to see how the GigaOm’s of this world compare to the TechCrunch’s.

  • Hi Markus – you are right – I think news businesses will be much smaller in the future than they have been in the past – both at the ‘sound-bite’ level and the quality opinion level – not least due to the decoupling of these markets.

  • It’s a very interesting space to watch at the moment. The intercection of a social/mobile content rich web, combined with fast moving technical innovation in mobile and cloud computing makes for turbulent/uncertain times.

    I suspect we will look back at the iPad as a turning point for traditional publishers. But one that also represented the eye of the storm before the rest of the disruption continued to sweep through the industry.

  • Hi Tassos – I think some publications will get by with this strategy (e.g. The Economist) but not that many. Opinion and analysis gets reprinted and rehashed just like news.