Blog Post

What Comes After Newspapers: Forget Form, It’s About Content

Andrew Walkingshaw is CEO of London-based startup Timetric, which specializes in economic data services, but he is writing a series about the post-newspaper world at his personal blog with pretext. We’re publishing this installment with his permission.

Let’s try a thought experiment. The current newspaper business model is beyond fixing. What happens next? A bunch of companies need to find something people want. We’ve got companies like that: lots of talent, some capital, no business model. They’re startups. Here, newspapers now have more in common with three guys in a back bedroom than the company they’ve been keeping up to now. They’ve got some unique issues, too, like huge and inappropriate cost and capital structures, but they have the nucleus of really strong teams and they’ve got fantastically strong brands, public goodwill and link equity. What can you make from that? What will people pay for?

Whatever it is, it’s likely to be something new. How do we know what’s fundamentally new and what’s just cosmetically different, though? Sometimes they’re hard to distinguish. Take tablets, for example. The Times is betting heavily on the iPad. Ever since Christmas Day, ads for their app have been showing up in every other break on Sky TV. It looks… alright, I guess. Pretty nice. Similar to the WSJ app I’m trialling.

I’m an iPad-toting media junkie. I can’t be bothered to even download the Times app. That’s not promising for team Murdoch. Actually, I’m finding it hard to see how it can work at all. Simply put: after the novelty wears off, who are the customers who are going to pay for this thing?

At Timetric, my bluntness sometimes stresses my colleagues out. I’m not exactly a model of diplomacy. However, I believe the alternative, when you’re talking strategy, is worse; woolliness is at best a sign of magical thinking and most likely one of full-on self-delusion. If you can’t state your customer proposition simply and clearly, explaining who gets what benefit and how and why they’ll pay for it, and back that up with actual people who confirm your hypotheses, then you’re spinning yourself a yarn.

In the last post in this series, I talked about selling benefits. The benefit of reading the content the WSJ pushes to me – and the WSJ, like the Times, is a branch of News Corporation (NSDQ: NWS) – is straightforward: it helps me understand economic issues I need to understand in my professional life. Delivery to my iPad is convenient and a nice gesture, but it’s a fringe benefit; a reason to pick the WSJ over another source of market intelligence. In other words, I had a need which I previously filled in other ways. It’s competing against CityAM and and FT Alphaville, not a vacuum. However, I’m willing to pay for the WSJ content package, because that package could make me more successful, because parts of it are genuinely unique and because the package itself is assembled by experts. I trust it as information I can act on.

It’s straightforward tactics. If the WSJ app switches enough people like me – consumers of economic and business news – away from Fortune or Bloomberg Radio or *CNBC*, or if it reduces subscriber churn enough, then it’s likely to justify the development cost and to be a smart move.

In comparison, the Times apps on iPad, and indeed most newspaper apps, and indeed most newspapers, are harder for me to make sense of. The commercial team at News Corp are smart, so I’m probably missing something, but …

They look innovative; possibly part of their value, internally, is that they’ll make it look like you’re doing something when you have to justify your worsening bottom line. But as an effective business strategy, I’m not so sure. The iPad is, above all, a great web browser, so any iPad news app is competing against every site on the Web, as well as every other app in the store. Even comparing like with like – as with the WSJ, apps are usually a little bit nicer than websites – what distinctive advantage does the Times app provide to me over, say, the BBC News app, plus Twitter, plus Flipboard pointed at Pitchfork, *ESPN* and Serious Eats, plus timeshifting long articles through Instapaper? Very little. I’d say the Flipboard/Instapaper pairing’s probably better. And while the Times has fine journalists covering mainstream news, so does the BBC or CNN or the Telegraph. The Times isn’t politically distinctive, it doesn’t have an instructive, characteristic worldview, and it definitely doesn’t have high-value exclusive information I can act on. Its sports and entertainment coverage aren’t typically as in-depth or compelling as the specialists. The Times’ proposition is a convenient and entertaining package of basic information on politics, economics, news and sport. You can get that almost anywhere for free. Therefore, the Times, alongside most other newspapers, is competing on style, not relevance or substance.

(Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why, long term, I think the US will wind up with around four to six newspaper-like organizations. There are only so many styles with mass appeal and winner takes all. I’ll come back to that in the future.)

It feels like the Times is making a big, simple, bold gamble; that there’s a mass market, at least the size of their print readership, who can wither be transitioned from print to online/tablet (without them bleeding away to a free competitor like BBC News) or who are neophilic enough to own an iPad yet neophobic enough to be persuaded by a combo of the Times brand and the convenience of not having to stop at a newsagent in the morning. The Times on iPad is the Times on paper in techno trousers. Betting the farm on that is risking a lot on basically cosmetic innovation. At least people with an iPad likely have disposable income, and no doubt the Times have done their research, but fundamentally I just don’t like, or believe in, that bet. The Times doesn’t have a form problem: it has a content problem. I don’t care about its content nearly enough to pay. I didn’t care enough when it was free, and now it’s trying to charge me money in a saturated market for an inferior experience. Short of the industry bullying the legal system into creating an artificial monopoly, I can’t ever see myself paying.

Put another way, tablets are always-on, tactile, completely reconfigurable, great-looking, permanently jacked into the Internet plumbing, and you’re using them to make skeumorphic newspaper clones? When there are thousands of new, more direct, more usable, more valuable experiences you could build using the same technical and journalistic skills, and when you’ve already established I wasn’t willing to pay for your paper in the first place?

Seriously: what the hell are you thinking?

If I care enough about your content, you can give it to me on stone tablets in cuneiform and I’ll find a way to use it. If I care a bit, I’ll go where it’s the right combination of easy, affordable and reliable. (But: if you want me to pay, I’d better be making money or having fun somehow.) If I don’t care at all, there is nothing you can do, not even really nice swipe effects, which will make me care. Come back when you’ve fixed the content. Come back when you can show me a new perspective. Come back when you make me faster or smarter. Come back with fundamental, not cosmetic, innovation. We’ll talk then.

9 Responses to “What Comes After Newspapers: Forget Form, It’s About Content”

  1. Simon Pieman

    you wrote all of this without even downloading the app? You should put yourself in others people’s shoes before pronouncing judgement. Your preferences reflect your job, not the wider population. Your insight is not about the Times, it’s about your personal changes.

    The theory is good, but incomplete. Brand is still something that brings people in, but user experience can keep them – just ask any iphone/ipad owner. I am not a fan of News Corp but their iPad app offers a great UX. I return to sites that offer good content plus a nice UX. I recent;y stopped picking up Metro from my station and have started paying 20p per day for the new “i” newspaper. Metro’s crap journalism was making me ill, i’s style is intelligent, broad, concise and – crucially – I love the layout of the paper. It’s a great UX. I’ll pay for that.

  2. “If you look at content/information delivery monetization over information delivery platforms, the ad-only model has never been predominant. That’s because it doesn’t provide enough revenue to provide the quality and access that customers want, which is what drives the content business.”

    In reality, haven’t most content creation efforts been totally advertising supported? How many newspapers and magazines have generated substantially more subscription and newsstand revenue than their costs to print and deliver the physical publications? I’d say that people have been paying for the means of distribution as much as for the content.

    Also, way too many publications like to assume that their content is so “valuable” that people can’t do without it or get the equivalent elsewhere. Arrogant assumptions of superiority are not the likeliest route to survival. I take a 20 minute subway ride to work. Some days, if I don’t have my Ipad with me and I am bored I will spend 50 cents to buy a newspaper to read on the train. I am paying for the convenience of having something disposable that I can read on the train, nothing more. The content may amuse me for 20 minutes, but it is nothing I cannot do without, nor is it something I would consider paying for on the Internet if I have access to the broader world of content.

    It is time for the industry to stop whining and start adapting…and part of that means cutting massively bloated cost structures that are legacies from the days when they had a sort of monopoly. And if you want people to pay for content it better be good, original, and very targeted. No one needs to pay to get shallow articles covering headlines or sports scores.

  3. Bountiful brevity.

    Is that a “dichotomy”?

    How about “amateur pundit”?

    How did I get to this Web site, any way?

    I stumbled across it, some how.

    Was doing so my destiny? Pure chance or perhaps sheer luck?

    Will the fate of the entire free world be altered?

    Could peace and prosperity suddenly break out across the globe with even the idiots infesting the “government” of North Korea apologizing for their horde of anti-social behavior and adopting friendler ways of managing their citizens and attempting to be friendly to other countries?

    Imagine the potential possibilities of my arrival at this Web site!!!!!

    Amazed am I at the tremendous array of ramifications that could result at my, the Disgruntled Old Coot, arriving at this particular Web site.

    The universe itself may tremble.

    And that, kids, is a LOT of trembling!!!

  4. Hmmm…I have an iPad and I totally love not having to slog through web sites-and their maddening ads-for free news. The beauty of subscribing through an ap is how well the ap delivers the content to you sans the clutter of links to ads. I would compare it to having a the news organized and handed to you on a silver platter quickly and efficiently as opposed to tearing through a pile of loose papers strewen about on the floor looking for the jump page to the story you were reading.

  5. I would completely disagree with this. If you look at content/information delivery monetization over information delivery platforms, the ad-only model has never been predominant. That’s because it doesn’t provide enough revenue to provide the quality and access that customers want, which is what drives the content business. The internet has changed nothing about this but the delivery platform — newspapers, and magazines (because print media is one in the same in terms of delivery platform, and both will be disrupted by the internet) will no longer rely on their legacy platform (print) to do business. That is why the internet was in part created, and in part why it is here. It should not come as a surprise, confusion, etc to anybody given this.

    You are looking at a giant evolution of both the information delivery (broadcast TV, print, etc.) AND communications (home phone, mobile phone) platforms — they are all moving to one, the internet. As much as scholars, experts, etc. would like to believe this will change the models that have endured countless innovations and new platforms over time, it won’t. Just how consumers receive this information.

    The issue with the content business being broken boils down to basic ignorance. A market that believes consumers won’t pay for content over the internet, despite that consumers do and have for more than ten years, and that refuses to create a compelling product, in part because it doesn’t understand what drives consumers to enjoy content, and in part because it’s limited because it relies on a model (ad-only) that has never worked well in its business.

    There was a barrier of entry with devices previously, but that has finally changed with lean back devices that feel more organic and natural to the experience. It’s worth noting this has been possible for probably a half decade, but a clueless market unwilling to learn delayed its arrival, just like all of the above too. :)