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 forbes.com 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.