Newspapers: Fixing the wrong problem
There’s this old chestnut about the light at the end of the tunnel — you have to beware that it isn’t an on-coming train. I feel like I am watching a slo-mo train wreck in the newspaper industry.
My local paper, the Boston Globe, is owned by the New York Times and like most American papers it is in tough financial straits these days. The parent company told it to cut costs or else and the typical response was a pay cut for Globe employees.
I say American because newspapers are thriving elsewhere and publishers charge about three times the American rate. And would you believe it, Americans aren’t even close to the top of the heap in per capita readership. But I digress.
Ok, times are hard. I get it. But we are not simply watching a financially constrained company deal with reality, here. We’re watching as some executives try to preserve an old business model rather than adapt. Ad revenue is being slurped up by more nimble technology situated on the Internet. Everyone I talk to implicitly understands that the solution to the papers’ woes is to charge for on-line content.
It ought to be a no-brainer. Most papers including the Globe already have a Web presence so the issue is not whether but how to tariff for it. I have written elsewhere that this is a manageable problem. Good, fast, cheap on-demand software already exists from companies like Zuora and Aria to name two that enable on-line billing and payment. No big deal, you could implement a newspaper’s Web billing plan over a weekend and then begin the gradual process of moving customers over.
So what did the Globe do?
They built a new Web interface powered by Adobe Air and began promoting a downloadable application. Apparently the thought is to provide store and go capability so that customers would not stay logged in all day.
Normally I try to follow mom’s advice and not say anything rather than something bad but this is beyond stupid. First, it solves a problem no one had. We can all read journalism from any number of papers without a special reader. We login and sometimes stay logged in because that’s how we get breaking news. In fact, one of the important benefits of on-line papers is immediacy, the Globe ought not to be worried about logins.
Next, and most obvious, several surveys I have seen indicate that a sizable population gets it and is willing to pay for the content. The Globe should not be so concerned about turning people off with fees. Most of us understand the benefit of convenience that comes with on-line news.
Finally, the Globe has invented what may turn out to be the world’s greatest buggy whip. Ten or twenty years ago a reader might have been a good idea. That was an era of dial-ups, VPNs and such. In the ubiquitous computing era bandwidth isn’t much of an issue. What is, is the Globe’s balance sheet which would be helped immeasurably if the Globe and the Times simply cut to the chase and began charging for their content. The need is there, so is the technology but for some reason, leadership and intestinal fortitude haven’t showed up for work.