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Can Publishers Create a Business Class For News?

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In their ongoing struggle to get readers to pay for content, some media companies have implemented paywalls, while others have hitched their wagon to Apple’s (s aapl) app store and are trying a subscription model. But what if, instead of trying to charge everyone for the same content, publishers could come up with something similar to what business class achieves for airline passengers: a premium experience. Would people pay for that? Design agency Information Architects thinks they would — but the problem for news companies is that others are already busy creating that experience.

The design agency — which is headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland and Tokyo, Japan — has worked for some of the world’s leading newspapers, including Ziet Online in Germany, and also created the Writer application for the iPad. In a recent blog post, co-founder Oliver Reichenstein described a conversation with the CEO of a large publishing company about revenue-generating strategies for newspapers and other content companies. Reichenstein made the point that:

The main currency of news sites is attention and not dollars and that I believe that it is his job, as a publisher, to turn that attention into money to keep the attention machine running.

The CEO agreed, and said that he had been thinking about how to do that, but didn’t see paywalls as the answer. Then he came up with the “business class” analogy:

Why do people fly Business Class? In the end, an airplane brings me to the same place regardless of whether I fly Economy or Business Class and the massive price-increase I pay doesn’t compare the difference in value.

The answer, the CEO said, was that business class was just a better experience — less crowded, more pleasant treatment from the flight attendants, better food and drinks, shorter lines for security checks, and so on. And it’s true, says Reichenstein, that the experience that many newspaper readers get is a little like an economy-class airplane flight: news pages are cluttered with banner ads, widgets designed to promote other content in the paper, useless features and a “claustrophobic information design [that makes] the reading experience a torture.” What if some of that could be removed to create a better experience?

There’s no question that Reichenstein is onto something with this approach. Many newspaper pages and websites look hideous — and the New York Times, which he uses for his example, is actually one of the most well-designed in terms of readability. All the pageview-generating mechanisms and promotional features and banner ads squeeze the actual content into such a narrow box that it is actually difficult to read. Which is why so many people (including me) prefer to read through apps such as Flipboard and Zite, which in many cases display the content free from all the clutter, or by using tools such as Instapaper and Readability, which do the same.

The only problem with this strategy, of course, is that it strips away the ability of publishers to pay for their content — which is why Zite got hit with a cease-and-desist order from a number of content companies recently, for altering the appearance of their content without permission (Zite has made changes to its approach and now shows many sites in a web-page view). Flipboard has been much more accommodating in its dealings with publishers, and is trying to interest them in a revenue-sharing model, which seems to be having some success given the company’s recent announcement of a deal with Oprah Winfrey. Readability and Instapaper, meanwhile, have implemented a kind of “tip jar” approach to try to help publishers recoup some revenue from those missing ads.

One of the big issues with the “business class” metaphor, however (like the “iTunes for news” analogies that were popular not so long ago), is that news simply isn’t like air travel at all, in some pretty important ways. To take just one example, you can only fly one airline at a time, and you can only go to one destination at a time. The rise of RSS readers, and more recently, Twitter and other social-reading tools such as Flipboard, Zite and Tweetmag allows people to read multiple sources at a time, and that is one thing that the IA design approach doesn’t really take into account.

Is there a way for publishers to replace some of their lost revenue by working with Flipboard and Zite and other similar tools? They’d better hope so, because it’s happening whether they figure it out or not.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Karl Baron

13 Responses to “Can Publishers Create a Business Class For News?”

  1. Great article and discussion here… I too think that paid content can work under certain circumstances – depending on the crowd and type of content.

    However, I think what in other circumstances, the experience which is called here the “Business Class Experience” should be offered to subscribers who agree to forego a little privacy and and share deep targeting information with the publication (e.g. details such as income level, profession, family details etc.). While many people hold their privacy dearly of course, I think that a publication which has established trust and takes such an endeavor seriously can have a significant portion of repeat visitors register and give such details. These visitors can enjoy better experience (less and far more targeted ads, allowing for better layout) while delivering better $-value per page view to the publication.

    There are various details in such a scheme to get right, but I guess for a comment I should stop here ;)

  2. There is definitely a market for premium content but not enough of a market to transform the conventional economics of the content business. For example, I know many people on Wall St. would pay to have special access to the reporters at the Detroit Free Press to get more scoop on the auto business. Maybe the Free Press could make an extra $750,000 per year selling premium access. Nice money, but not enough to transform the entire paper.

  3. The Wall Street Journal has been the “Business Class” of news for decades. And it used that model to successfully charge online subscriptions. Although it does give away a lot of content.

    But under Murdoch, the WSJ has been trying to be America’s newspaper. The “Business Class” branding is slipping. Perhaps to counter it, the WSJ is offering a $50 per month version for CFOs. Whether that works remains to be seen.

    Creating a premium news offering is tough because there are so many competing, free options. Forget charging for unbiased and quality news because those qualifiers are highly subjective.

    It’s the information that no one else has that is worth money. That’s why the Bloomberg Box is so successful. Wall Street needs the information to profit.

    “Business Class” is going to succeed only if it serves a radid niche and offers unique information.

  4. Do you think that rather than just working with Flipboard, Zite etc., the publishers should work with large enterprises? eg. Today in the physical space, the marketing deptt gets daily free print copies and also shares accounts for certain online pubs. Does it see the making of a triumvirate enterprise play between publishers, makers of reader apps and content consumers?

  5. Chris Talbott

    I agree with the others here that this analogy is a blind alley. Greg’s link to The Economist is the best follow up. Why is it that no one talks about better quality as something worth paying for? On the other hand, while I’m willing to pay for quality, the NYTimes pay wall lost me completely because the price is quite out of step with reality.
    Here are three things I will pay for in news:

    1. Integrity
    2. Deep and thorough analysis
    3, Clear and fresh writing

    Amazing how rare these things are. I guess it’s time to renew my Economist subscription.

  6. Content monetization over information delivery platforms is just not that complicated. Only a lack of understanding content monetization over platforms has created a problem for the media industry. There is nothing otherwise wrong with the content business or model. You have an internet market that believes content business can scale the same way software/tech can, which has never been true in decades and won’t be now. You have a media business that has no idea why consumers are willing to pay for its product (content), and an overall marketplace that thinks the only way businesses draw audiences is by giving away things for free. None of this is true, of course. If web/media/etc 2.0 actually studied how content business models have worked for decades and decades over several disruptive platforms, it would find that ad-only models have NOT been the predominant model in decades because what drives consumers to consume content is 1. value and 2. access — ie, access to experiences, things, happenings, etc. that they can’t get on their own (EXAMPLE: NFL football games). Consumers not businesses drive subscription content for this reason alone. Just because web/media/etc 2.0 is really green about this stuff doesn’t mean the model’s broken :)

  7. It’s a terrible metaphor, and it’s not going to work.

    What Harlow said: people don’t pay for biz class, and, what is more, most people don’t even see it as affordable.

    Obviously, paywall news sites are more or less affordable. The trouble is that people don’t see the value-add. I know I don’t.

  8. The other obvious problem with the “business class” metaphor is that content, by and large, is not a question of experience but of utility. Indeed, can one really imagine readily available content being served as paid – and people actually paying for it – just because of better reading experience? (There are other glaring problems with the metaphor, perhaps too many to mention here).

    It seems to me that readers’ attention is best leveraged long term not by means of perfecting the form of delivery but by going right to the essence of what digital content should actually mean – not a mirror image of papers’ print edition but a different content proposition based on the specifics of the medium. One media consultancy that has been doing some pretty meaningful work in this field is Innovation Media Consulting: – well worth checking out.

    And here is a good look at what this different digital driven content proposition might actually look like:

  9. “first class” lol – sign of utter desperation.

    Stock holders will NOT like seeing executive expense reports with line items like

    “Q2 2011-Q4 2012, amount: $1,350.00 Category: Misc. Notes: too lazy to just read a publicly available web page. Had to have ultra premium reader….”

  10. Harlow P. Whitcomb

    I think the analogy is false. Few travelers pay for business class – at least directly. Airlines use business class as a reward mechanism for their best customers. Following that model, publishers should offer cleaner pages and fewer ads to readers who visit most often.