a new model for news publishing

February 12, 2010

publishers should consider three things in tandem when planning a new strategy for marketing news:

1. variety of customers: not everyone wants to buy a full subscription (but some people still do). some people only care about the technology section, others will only care about individual articles. newspapers have to get more focused in their marketing–they need to market to full-subscription buyers, section buyers, and single article buyers, and they should make all three styles of purchase available

2. instant communication with email or social media: customers who don’t buy a full subscription or section subscription aren’t going to get their news directly from publishers any more. they’ll get it filtered through their friends, families, colleagues, etc., a sort of “second editorial board”. that means a significant number of articles have to be written or styled (and most of all priced) so that the maximum number of regular subscribers will say to themselves “i bet x would like this enough to spend y cents on it” and send it. the New York Times recently had an article on the most-emailed articles and found that “awe-inspiring” news travels best (rather than try to explain it, i’ll just let you read their description, which i can do since they aren’t behind a paywall until next year–http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/09/science/09tier.html). so there’s a place to start. however, someone might also decide to follow people aggregating news that aren’t in their social circle simply because they’re good at it (i.e. collect and list stories that particular customer wants). thus places like reddit, digg, etc. will still exist in site-form, as will aggregators-as-individuals on facebook, twitter, etc., but the articles they link from news providers will no longer be free

3. pricing: this follows from the first and second parts. some basic stuff will probably continue to be free. articles that just pull information from the AP aren’t going to make money any more. if there’s big news, everyone is going to hear about it e.g. the Haiti earthquake. what has the staying power to continue making cash is in-depth, detailed reporting and analysis. the demand for information isn’t going away. what went away is the demand for basic information (because its cost is now next-to-zero). the demand for quality information is still high, and that can be monetized accordingly.

newspapers should aim then for a filter-down system in which they publish articles restricted to their subscription and section buyers, the “mavens” (to borrow from Malcolm Gladwell) who want regular, detailed news, who will then pass the news on via email and social media as single articles, which should be bought for micropayments (probably a full order of magnitude smaller than the cost of a song on iTunes, since news is “perishable”–news/information is a weird commodity this way: once it’s been “consumed”, one no longer has real use for the physical or electronic copy, though the good itself, the information, still exists insofar as it stays in your head). this has the benefit too of making people want to be subscribers–who always wants to be the guy getting the news from someone else or forwarding only the news they’ve gotten from someone else?

under this system, news publishing doesn’t die off (we avoid all of those nasty gloom-and-doom predictions where free-riders kill the market), publishers get paid for their work/value-added of aggregating and investigating, while the broad access to news and analysis that everyone’s been hailing so much is still possible

of course, whether this is at all viable depends entirely on the willingness of people to pay those micropayments for single articles, but it will be possible to adjust their cost easily. as long as the highly reduced price in this particular market (the other two can more or less survive on old pricing schemes, though they will still probably end up reduced) can drive enough of an increase in quantity demanded to make newspapers profitable overall, it’ll work