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Second Annual Global Conference on Individuated Newspapers

[My opening keynote speech at the Second Annual Global Conference on Individuated Newspapers, Denver, Colorado, June 26, 2008]

Some of you here know me. Since 1993 when I began working full-time in newspaper new media, I’ve given approximately 100 speeches at conferences. I’ve given speeches at E&P, WAN, Ifra, INMA, and Seybold. But this is the speech I’ve been waiting for all those years. I may not have known it then, but I know it now.

In it, I’m going to say some heretical things. But please remember that I’m a fifth-generation newspaperman. I literally grew up in a letterpress-era newsroom, can read teletype, work a linotype, cut press plates, and run a press. I’ve sold ads. I’ve driven delivery trucks. I’ve reported, edited, and general managed a daily. I’m a professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. If I speak what sounds like heresy or I criticize this industry, know that it is because I love the newspaper business. It’s my family and my life.

The reason why this is the speech that I’ve been working up to all my life, is it distills all I know about this business and its future. The culmination of all I know as a newsman, newspaper, and professor. We’ve a bold agenda today.

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EPublishing Innovations Forum 2008

My opening keynote speech at the 2008 EPublishing Innovations Forum, London, May 7th

Thanks, David! Two linguistic notes before I begin.

First, please forgive my Yank accent. My great-grandfather Crosbie, who was born in London, would wince at it.

Second, doe anyone here speak Chinese? I ask because, after people who read English, the second largest linguistic group online today is people who read Chinese. To make sure they benefit from my speech, I took the title that the conference organizers suggested – Thriving in the digital age: threats and opportunities for digital publishers – and put that into Google’s English-to-Chinese translation engine. Then, just to make sure that I got the Chinese version right, I took that result and put it into Yahoo’s Chinese-to-English translation engine. The resulting title is Watts that you say? Screw Gutenberg, the Change Underway is Even Larger. So that’s what I’m going to talk about.

Gutenberg. The Screw. Watt. And why the changes today underway are even larger than during Gutenberg. (Don’t worry, I’ll explain the screw.)

Here is a slide of Gutenberg in Strasbourg. His statue in bronze and a target today for pigeons. He’s also a target for quotes about the Internet. My guess is that you’ve all heard most the quotes before:

‘The Internet is the biggest things since Gutenberg.’
‘The change underway will be the biggest since Gutenberg.’
‘The Internet will change things as much as Gutenberg did.’

Well, don’t get me wrong: Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press probably sparked the Renaissance. Yet it’s time we understand something: The change today underway is even larger!

The change now underway is bigger than mass production was for the medieval calligraphers and scribes who Gutenberg’s invention put out of work. Moreover, it’s not just a change from production of single calligraphic editions to mass production of millions of books. What is underway is an intellectual jump. It’s a quantum jump in how information is distributed to people and how they find information.

I’ve lately become an academic, and in academia we have a technical term for the magnitude of the change today underway. It is an academic term that combines Norman French and Anglo-Saxon. We call it a Mindf*ck.

It’s like a jump from two to three dimensions. And from this new dimension arises phenomenal new opportunities for publishers. Opportunities we’ll talk about.

Unfortunately, most publishers today still think only in the old two dimensions – and therein lay the only threat to their livelihoods. Their failure to understand the new dimension underway in publishing is the threat. Understand me: The only threat is not to understand the change underway.

Let’s go back in time for a moment. The U.K. Statistics Office says there are more than 10,000 Britons who are more than 100 years old. In 1908, the streets outside this hotel, and all the streets of London, were full of horse carriages and horse carts. Though the 20th Century was new then, people nevertheless knew that the 21st Century would be a mechanized age despite the abundance of horses.

The early automobiles showed promise. Telephones were beginning to become common in offices and homes. Tesla and Marconi were each experimenting with something that would eventually be called radio. Yet nobody knew how quickly all those things would affect London’s seven million people, one million horses, 25 daily newspapers. Also, more esoteric and far-reaching things were also being developed in 1908. Things like quantum mechanics, which would later give us devices such as television, the transistor, the computer, the laser, and the CD, DVD, etc.

Today in 2008, people still get information distributed on paper pulp or from analog broadcast transmitters that fundamentally have changed little since Marconi’s time. Nevertheless, we know that our new century will be an all- digital age. An age of pervasive information. If the personal computer and mobile phone were our equivalents of the newfangled telephones and automobiles for people 100 years ago, so too can we now foresee things that are only recently being and invented, things we’re starting to have a clue that will shape the 21st century.

The one million horses were gone from London’s streets by 1920, only a dozen years’ after 1908. Likewise, the changes between now and 2020 will be phenomenal. If you think that you’ve seen change during the past dozen years, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

I’ve a bold agenda this morning. My job is to tell you how much things will change and explain the general themes and opportunities in those changes for publishers in the 21st century.

  • I will explain why 1.3 billion people have gravitate online despite their already having access to mass media in much more convenient formats than online.
  • I will explain why the fragmentation of audiences is an illusion.
  • I will explain why traditional newspapers’ and news magazines’ circulations, and news broadcasts’ viewerships, must ineluctably evaporate. And the reason is not because people don’t want news.
  • I will explain why most newspapers’ and news magazines’ and news broadcasters’ Web sites won’t save their companies. (In other words, why what you here in British publishing circles are calling the Rusbridger Cross won’t occur.)
  • And I’ll explain why people will be even better served by New Media than by Mass Media. In other words, why the change today is even greater than that during Gutenberg’s era.

That’s an ambitious agenda, so let’s begin.

Continue reading EPublishing Innovations Forum 2008

Leadership

If you work in the media industries and are serious, ask yourself this questions right now: ‘Where should I be working to have the most beneficial affect on my industry?’

If you aren’t working there now, why aren’t you?

Is it because of money? Are you working where you are because that job pays you more than other jobs? Well, if that job pays you just enough to care well for you (and your spouse and family, if you have those), then rest easy.

But if instead you are working where you are because your job is highly lucrative, then know I have the credentials to say to you, shame on you. I earned more than $200,000 in each of the years from 1998 until just recently. But I realized that lucrative earnings˜trying to take as much money as possible from industries that are challenged by fundamental changes in their environment˜is not leadership but exploitation of those industries and the people who work in those indiustries. You might think you are a leader but you definitely are not; you are fooling yourself. You are merely a high-level bureaucrat who is managing decline; you are an incompetent general who is trying to manage a retreat.

Oh, and if you a middle-level manager who is reading this and you think your bosses should be doing more but you are afraid of telling them so, then you as nearly culpable as they are. If you what you do as a middle manager isn’t bold enough and forward enough to nearly get you fired during this turbulent time in our industries, then you aren’t ably doing your job and you yourself aren’t showing the traits of leadership.A lieutenant or captain, no less than a general, has to put herself at risk.

I am the fifth generation of my family in the newspaper business: the son, grandson, great grandson, great-great grandson, and great-great-great grandson of men and women who worked their entire lives to make that business succeed. What they did was mainly for the public good. What right should I have to cash out when during my watch that industry is undergoing challenges that I could otherwise show it how to overcome? What right do you who work in it today, no matter your ancestory, have to cash out in that case despite thousands of your predecessors who’ve worked to make it succeed?

I’ve recently left consulting full-time after 12 years and taken a job that will probably cut my income by 75%. But the remainding 25% gives me enough to live on while I work where I can have the most beneficial affect on my industry.

What are you doing? There are people in the media industries who quite literally risk their lives every day. If all you’ve done is cut staffs and haven’t invested long-term in your industry, then you’re a bureaucrat no matter how high is your job title. It’s time to put your career and livilihood to risk. Make the long-term decisions. Make the long-term decisions. Lead from the front. That’s what real generals do.

LA Times Confirms Ben Franklin's Definition of Insanity

“But Mr. Hiller said the paper was investing as much as it could, especially in its Web site, and the cuts were nothing more than an acceptance of reality.

‘Last year, our operating cash flow went down by about 20 percent,’ he said.

‘Can you solve the newspaper industry’s problems by spending more?’ Mr. Hiller said. ‘It’s an attractive theory, but it doesn’t work.'” – as reported by The New York Times

The Los Angeles Times (and the American newspaper industry in general) has cut its newsrooms budget dozens of times and none of those cuts have increased circulation or gross revenues. Likewise, this wasn’t the first time that the publisher of the Times has fired an editor who refused further to cut newsroom budgets (and a previous publisher had been fired for refusing to cut newsroom budgets further).

Then why would the David Hiller, latest publisher of The Los Angeles Times, think that further cutting the newsroom budget – or firing an editor who refused to do so – will change anything or result in any different outcome? It certainly won’t reverse the newspaper’s plummeting circulation or revenues.

Benjamin Franklin said that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Insanity and lack of leadership.

American Journalism Review Examines The Faith and Hope in Online

Hope and faith aren’t business plans.

In an article entitled Online Salvation, American Journal Review, examines the continuing delusion among American newspaper executives that their industry’s troubles are somehow ‘cyclical,’ that because newspapers were people’s major source of news for centuries then newspapers will somehow continue to be that major source, that double-digit annual increases in the industry’s relatively small online advertising revenues will ever compensate for the single-digit annaul decreases in the industry’s relatively gargantuan print advertising revenues, and that perhaps fedoras will return in men’s fashions. (OK, I made up that part about hats).

The article quotes Harvard University’s Thomas Patterson as seeing a two-tier news system developing, in which national sites continue to see online traffic increase but online traffic falling at mid-sized and smaller newspaper sites.

I don’t know what data Patterson is seeing, but traffic isn’t falling at smaller sites, though it is at mid-sized newspapers. The reason that traffic is slowly increasing at national and small newspapers is but not at mid-sized newspapers is that people are visiting the sites of national and small newspapers to use those newspapers respective core competencies of national and local news. Mid-sized newspapers have core competency in neither national nor local news (national newspaper do far better at national and the small newspapers that surround the mid-sized ones do far better at local).

I’ve always been amazed by one other article of faith among American newspaper executives, which wasn’t mentioned in this AJR article. That article of faith is American newspaper executives’ belief that the woes of their industry can be reversed at any time. They failed to reverse those woes years ago, but they believe they can reverse them today. And if they fail to reverse those woes today, they believe they can somehow reverse them in the future. Those newspaper executives apparently don’t live in the temporal world. Their faith is like that of perennial sinners who believe they can still go to heaven if they repent in the very last seconds before their deaths. A very convenient belief.

Unfortunately, the reality-based world doesn’t permit ‘eleventh hour’ redemptions and eternal salvation. ‘Windows of opportunity’ are stay open only temporarily, not eternally. Had American newspapers cooperated online years ago, they would have been today’s Google Newes, CraigsLists, and Ebays. But their windows of opportunities to do those things have closed years ago. To do great things now at all, they must work with Google, Yahoo!, CraigsList, Ebay, etc.

In another article, American Journalism Review assesses U.S. newspaper websites’ use of online video:

News organizations are embracing video on their Web sites in a big way. The quality ranges from bad to basic to superb. And for some journalists, the advent of video is a terrific new career opportunity.

On another topic, ACAP (Automated Content Access Protocol) is the newspaper industry’s latest attempt to control how the online search engines access and index newspaper content. It’s online coding that aims to replace the antiquated robots.txt protocol that still controls how the search engines’ access and index websites.

A driving force behind ACAP is the World Association of Newspapers, which not long ago wanted to prohibit and sue the search engines from accessing and indexing newspapers’ contents. WAN apparently now realizes that that strategy wouldn’t be successful, hence its backing of development of ACAP.

Unfortunately, Google, Yahoo!, and other major search engines aren’t involved or cooperating with the ACAP effort. They would need to be for ACAP to be successful, otherwise their search engines will just ignored the new protocol. Moreover, some of the preliminary reviews of ACAP, even within the newspaper industry, see no benefits in it for consumers.

The Times of London is the first major newspaper to use ACAP.

The Financial Times last week reported that the ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox television networks earned approximately $120 million from video advertising on their websites. That sounds like a lot, but the FT article happened to mention in passing that an estimated $1.3 billion was spent on video advertising on U.S. web sites last year. So, it seems to me that those traditional networks have been losing the lion’s share of it. Meanwhile, the BBC has apparently underestimated the growth of its online revenues.

It’s been a very dangerous year in which to be a journalists. Roy Greenslade of The Guardian noted last week that:

At least 171 journalists and other news media staff have died as a result of their work around the world so far this year, making 2007 the bloodiest year on record for the industry.

With more than a month still to go before the end of the year, the all-time high of 168 deaths recorded in 2006 was exceeded on Tuesday when at least three editorial staff were killed in Sri Lanka during a military air strike on a radio station.

“This horrible statistic should be regarded as a low point in the safety and welfare of the media profession. We need better protection for media workers worldwide,” said the president of the International News Safety Institute (INSI), Chris Cramer.

Last month, I met numerous journalists who’ve been beaten, shot, and almost blown to bits. Here’s what I was doing in Guatemala for the Media Development Loan fund, an organizationt that funds freedom of the press in countries with repressive regimes.

Hey, if anything we produce is now automatically copyrighted when we produce it, tell the copyright lawyers that everytime they sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to their kids, every time they include a full text of a correspondent’s e-mail when they reply to it, and every time they snap a family photo that happens to have an artwork, poster, or advertisement in the background, they are infringing on someone’s else copyright. University of Utah law professor John Tehranian estimates that he himself infringes to the tune of $12.45 million in liabilities each day. What’s your own total?

Totals? Math? Oh, yes, In case you care, the Internet is growing sigmoidally,not exponentially. What would Sigmoid Froid say?

How Oslo's Dagbladet Newspaper Integrates Videos Into Its Website

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Ole Werring, TV manager of Dabladet of Oslo, Norway, described to Ifra‘s annual Beyond the Printed Word online publishing conference how his newspaper has integrated video into its traditionally text news site.

Dagbladet initially began offering video on its site in 1999 but found its unpopular because not many Norwegians had broadband connections then, but it relaunched its about video efforts in 2006. Dagbladet employs four peole full-time to produce about 60 videos per week for Dagbladet. That number includes videos they create plus editing videos received from Reuters and the Associated Press. Each video is integrated into the text news page about that story. Each video includes a commercial that rolls before the video plays.

Each video is also offered to Dagbladet’s mobile phone service users.

Promotional trailers for cinema features are also offered (Werring was formerly with the Norwegian Film Institute).

Dagbladet has begun using user-generated videos to illustrate secondary stories. Werring mentioned that it’s often impossible to illustrate these with video except by using videos shot by users on the scene.

Dagbladet has also launched a YouTube-type site on which users can upload their own videos. He said the newspaper realizes that they will still upload videos onto YouTube.com, but believes that Dagbladet.no has enough usership and obviously enough Norwegian focus to attract users’ videos. Dagbladet.no and its associated websites currently receive about 3.9 million unique users per month, which isn’t too bad in a country of only 4 million people. (Nonetheless, Dagbladet has two even larger competitors.)

Dagbladet’s abilities to create video news reports has allowed it to begin working with Norwegian television organizations to produce news stories about crime, politics, recipes, and other topics.

How Asahi Shimbun's 12 Mobile Phone News Sites Work

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At Ifra‘s annual Beyond the Printed Word conference this afternoon, Atsushi Sato, deputy manager of the Digital Media Division of The Asahi Shimbun of Japan described how his newspaper operates its sites for mobile phone users.

His newspaper, which has a daily circulation of 12 million copies daily, operates 12 mobile phone information sites and earned $33 million, in a nation in which almost everyone uses a mobile phone. His divisions average annual revenue per users is $53.30, which by comparison puts its mobile on par with the revenues earned by only a few top American newspaper websites. It earns those revenues despite earning a relatively small commission on use of its content by mobile phones. When a mobile phone user accesses the content, she is billed by her phone company, which in turn gives Asahi a ten percent commission. The average amount that Asashi earns per user per service is only $0.07875 per month. Fortunately, his services have lots of users.

Asahi has created and grown its mobile sites by creating a main site, seeing what topics of content are most used on it, and then creating new sites about that content. Among its sites:

  • Asahi-Nikkansports, a joint venture with Nikkansports, provides up to 170 sports articles per day, updating throughout the day.
  • Asahi Lifeline, a site that keeps users informed about natural or man-made disasters.
  • Asahi Mobile Shorts, which provides nine 15-second video clips and 5 still photos daily. Sato said that Asahi had found 15-second to be a good length of time on mobile phones.
  • Nikkan Geino, an entertainment news site, heavy on celebrity and Hollywood news.
  • Asahi Otona no Hondana, a site that offers the contents of ebooks and manga (graphic comics). Sato said this site had grown 386 percent during 2006 and was a major source of revenues.
  • R25 Mobile, which offers a free magazine (no charge to the user’s phone bill).
  • Mixi, a social networking service, which has 10 million users.
  • Mobage, a free game service, which has 7 million users.
  • Kaor-Checki, a site people can user to compare themselves to TV personalities, which has 10 million users.

Sato said his division employs 150 people full-time.

He said it faces threats from Web browsers becoming installed into Japanese mobile phones (which are based on more simpler graphical interfaces); from a saturation of the Japanese mobile market; and from the disinclation of young people (ages 18-30) to pay for online content. Sato said that part of his division’s future strategy will be to concentrate e-books, manga, and also on paid services for older people.

Ian Davies on the Importance of Geocoding Newspaper Stories

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“People live locally,” Ian Davies, director fo business development of the British regional newspaper publishing company Archant Ltd., this afternoon reminded attendees of Ifra‘s annual Beyond the Printed Word online pubishing conference. He said a recent survey by the (UK) Newspaper Society indicated that the average distance of local interest is 8 miles, and that is not necessarily ‘local’ as newspaper publishers understand that term.

Davis emphasized that people online are interested in both topical and local communities, and that any newspapers must provide its readers with information about their street, town, region, nation, and the world. He said this shouldn’t be new to publishers, but the need to geocode stories is.

He gave examples of good use by Lawrence.com, Bakersfield.com, Sacramento Bee, Budstikka, ChicagoCrime.org, Los Angeles Times, Reuters, the Sydney Morning Herald, and SkyNews.

Monthly Circulation of 100,000 Without Printing or Website

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At Ifra‘s Beyond the Printed Word conference this afternoon, Rowan Barnett described how his monthly newspaper has a circulation of 100,000 without publishing a website or in print.

He is editor-in-chief of The Avastar, a virtual newspaper that circulates in the virtual world Second Life. Its owned and operated by Bild.T-Online AG, a joint venture between Deutsche Telecom and the publishing company Bild (Bild, Stern, Spiegel Online).

Second Life has 10.5 million registered users, although only some 560,000 are active. It is an avatar world, in which users create a graphical version of themselves and navigate through a three-dimensional graphic world, much like in a video game.

Barnett said that 95-percent of the site’s content is generated by its users. He emphasized that major advertisers such as Toyota, Mercedes, Reebok, Lacoste, and Armani has setup virtual stores in Second Life and that news organizations such as CNN, Reuters, and SkyNews has setup virtual news bureaus in it. Celebrities such as Bruce Willis, JZ, and 50 Cent have created their own avatar inhabitants there and given interviews.

The Avastar began publishing in English during December 2006, now also publishes a German-language edition, and generates up to 136,000 downloads per month. It currently downloads a PDF edition but plans to switch to a HTML site in the near future. Downloads are available a virtual kiosks and vendors in Second Life.

This virtual newspaper has a full-time staff of seven, supplemented by user-generated content from users, whose work is edited by the staff.

Barnett explained Second Life’s low usage rate as due mainly to technical problems involving its graphics. He said that 23 percent of users’ sessions end in browser crashes and another 8 percent end in server crashes.

(Though Barnett termed Second Life part of Web 3.0, I think that definition could create quite a dispute among those who favor Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s ‘semantic web’ definition.)

Danny Dagan's Presentation at Ifra's Beyond the Printed Word conference

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How what are the challenges in a popular tabloid creating user-generated content? Danny Dagan described some this morning at Ifra’s Beyond the Printed Word conference in Dublin.

Dagan is head of online communities at News Group Digital, which puts online London’s The Sun and News of the World, the two largest selling (3.2 million daily in the case of The Sun) tabloids in the English-language. Those newspapers’ websites attract 10.6 million unique users each month. The average user looks at 23 pages during the time.

The sites have begun to offer the beginnings of customized content. The sites provide each user with a widget that travels with them through each page of the site. The widget currently factors only the user’s gender and favorite football team, but really only football team. It colors itself in that team’s color, displays the team’s logo, and hyperlinks to the discussion area about the team. If the user is female, it just colors itself pink.

The challenges a popular tabloid faces when using user-generated content are:

  • How to balance freedom of speech versus England’s strong laws against libel and contempt?
  • How to protect children against offensive content?
  • How to deal with an online public that is nowadays less amenable to editorization by the host newspaper and also to waiting for content to be pubished>
  • How to achieve high quality content?
  • How to remove objectable content quickly and effectively?

News Group Digital employees seven people full-time as user-generated site moderators. They don’t directly explain to a user why his objectional comment was removed, because such conversations tend to be endless, but the site does have a section entitled ‘Why Your Posting Was Removed.’

Matthew Buckland's speech to Ifra's Beyond the Printed Word conference

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At Ifra‘s Beyond the Printed Word conference in Dublin, Matthew Buckland, general manager of the Mail & Guardian Online of South Africa, has given a presentation about ‘Integrating Web 2.0 tools into news sites.’ He previously in his own blog described his presentation and offered the presentation itself available for download.

Since you can download and see his slide presentation, I’ll mention a few points from how he narrated it:

‘Web 2.0’ tools have let the Mail & Guardian Online build user-generated content sites quickly and in collaboration with consumers. The tools harness the newspaper professional content and user-generated content. And have allowed the newspaper to get closer to its community.

The Mail & Guardian has chosen a ‘multi-brand’ approach. It has created Amatomu.com, an aggregator of regional South African blogs.; Thoughtleader.co.za; a site that combines the newspaper own content and the best content from South African bloggers; Newsinphotos.com, a title that describe the site; and also applications that consumers can use on Facebook.com. All of these were created using WordPress software (in case you were wondering which ‘Web 2.0’ tools). Buckland mentioned that consumers tend to write better if they know someone will be editing their work.

In three months time, these sites have generated 700,000 words from 100 contributors and also 3,000 reader comments, content that costs the Mail & Guardian nothing to generate.

Dr. Jo Grobel's Opening Keynote at Ifra's Beyond the Printed Word Conference

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I am at the first day of Ifra‘s 15th annual Beyond the Printed Word online publishing conference, being held today and tomorrow in Dublin. Four hundred twenty-seven people from 43 countries are attending. Ifra’s staff and some official volunteers are blogging the event in two ways (staff blog and group blog), but I am, too.

Professor Dr. Jo Groebel, (pictured above with conference co-chairman Elan Lohmann) director of the Deutsches Digital Institut (German Digital Institute), has given a keynote speech about how we are changing “from a world of consumers to a world of ‘prosumers'”.

He tried to comfort and caution the audience that things are changing at a remarkably quick pace, but one that this isn’t unusual: The number of printed books in Europe within a few years of Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable-type printing press was actually higher than the number of people who used the Internet within a few years of its public release during the 1990s.

The consumer is going from ‘unimedia to polymedia, Dr. Groebel said.’

He listed six characteristics he thinks 21st Century media will have:

  • Integrated (Convergence is real in 2007)
  • Immediate (people expect direct results)
  • International (it will be global)
  • Independet of time & space (on-demand, anywhere)
  • In Motion (new trend: everything is mobile)
  • Inner Circle & Bottom Up

Dr. Groebel pointed to what he calls the ”Big Three’ Trends

  • Capacity: broadband & digital platforms
  • Mobility: mobile communications
  • Community: User-generated content

He said that surveys of users in Germany show these are the purposesfor whcih people use the Internet are:

  • to get an the emotional kick of finding what they want.
  • to get information.
  • to communicate with each other.
  • to make transactions.
  • to be part of a community.
  • to exercise democracy in some form.

Dr. Groebel mentioned a study of 18 year-olds in the U.S. durng 1980 and during 2000 that indicated verbal intelligence significantly declined and visual intelligence had significantly increased. Will visual replace text, he rhetorically asked? No, each is used for specific functions, he said.

He mentioned several signals that consumers are becoming ‘prosumers.’ These were their development of online communities, development of group dynamic online, development of wikis (what he called the ‘enlightenment paradox’), and their development of group filtering to replace professional communications.

Dr. Groebel said the last development was particularly important. Surveys show that consumers’ trust in professional communications (journalism, political statements, public relations, marketing, etc.) has been lost. These surveys indicate that most people, regardless of their country’s political system, now distrust what journalists and other professional communications say. People are more likely to trust what other people say.

I think that Dr. Groebel, a psychologist by training, provided a overview of the superficial trends that form this year’s Beyond the Printed Word conference’s theme — the thing to do in a opening keynote, but I hope that the speakers who follow him will explain what underlies these trends.

My Re-Appearance

I had hugely underestimated the amount of my time I needed during the past seven weeks to:

  • Acccept on short-notice at professorship at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
  • Close my Connecticut home and move to Syracuse.
  • Close my Connecticut office and move it to Syracuse (though Its postal mailing address listed above is still valid)
  • Quickly finish a number of long-term assignments for my full-time consulting clients so that I could make time for Syracuse University (now more than 60 percent of my time).
  • Write syllabi for two university courses for undergraduate and graduate students. These courses are New Media Business and Experimental Media. There aren’t any existing syllabi and textbooks on those subjects, so I’ve had to create these courses from scratch.
  • Chair a faculty, staff, and student committee about integrating new media throughout the school’s teaching of newspaper, magazines, broadcast, film, public relations, advertising, and public diplomacy curricula.
  • So, I apologize for my absence. I still owe several other consulting clients some work. Blogging here has been accordingly very low on my priorities….

Payment for Online Content is Far From Dead, Despite TimesSelect's Demise

Many commentators are hailing the demise of The New York Times‘ TimesSelect service as the demise of paid content online. I hate to rain on their parade, but paid content isn’t dead. Consumer Reports, Zagat, Playboy and other premier brands prove everyday that paying for the premier content in a topical category is very much alive.

So why did the premier brand of The New York Times fail at paid content with Times Select? Because The New York Times and other traditional newspapers don’t provide premier content in a topical category. Traditional newspapers provide a package of news that attempts to satisfy everyone’s interests in all categories— an endeavor that is doomed to fail online and that is increasingly failing in print, too.

The demise of TimesSelect is notable only because it’s the last major gasp of newspaper publishers’ attempts to charge for providing everybody online with the exactly the same package of content. Not only won’t online consumers pay to receive exactly the same package as everyone else gets from a newspaper brand, but they won’t pay for even the best slice of that package.

That doesn’t mean that online consumers aren’t willing to pay; they just aren’t willing to pay to receive exactly the same package as everyone else gets. Unfortunately, most media executives don’t seem capable of conceiving that their companies can produce anything else at once but the same package of content for every consumers. Those executives are stuck thinking in what academics call ‘one-to-many’ or mass media terms.

People would be willing to pay a subscription fee for a service that delivers news to them online; but not for a service that doesn’t exactly meet their needs and interests, that sends exactly the same package of news to everyone. Paid content isn’t dead; just payment for the traditional ‘one-to-many’ package of content is.

There is a three-step process towards understanding why TimesSelect and other similar newspaper projects are doomed from the start. The steps are to understand why more than one billion people worldwide have gravitated onto the Internet; why traditional newspapers fail to match the reason why those people gravitated there; and why the traditional packaging of newspapers needs to radically change if that industry is to survive.

The fact is that, while everyone shares a few common interests (the weather, for example) and some people share some common interests (such as fans of the Red Sox), each person has many specific interests (a fan of Patrick McGoohan, knitting, Malaysian cuisine, etc.) and each individual is a quite unique mix of those common and specific interests.

To satisfy her mix of interests, an individual will use whatever media is available to her. Thirty years ago, her only choices in media were the three or four general-interest TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and maybe PBS) she could receive via antenna, one or two dozen magazines (mostly general interests ones such as Time, Newsweek, USN&WR, Life, Look, etc.) available on her local newsstands, and one or perhaps two (unless she lived in a metropolis) daily newspapers that were delivered in her town. While those would likely certainly her common interests each day, she’d have to glean them for the very occasional that might satisfy her mix of specific interests.

Then came cable (and later satellite) TV, which gave her dozens of specifically topical channels 24/7/365. Then came developments in offset lithography that made publication and distribution of topical (‘niche’) magazines economical, and hundreds appeared on newsstands. And then she got access to the Internet, which gave her access to millions of topical webpages. Usage of all of these satisfies her – and a billion other people’s — unique mix of commons and individual interests better than any general-interest newspaper or news program can. People’s use of the Internet to satisfy their individual mixes of interests caused the growth of the search engines. They didn’t gravitate to online to read general-interest newspapers and news magazines (things that later followed them online).

Because people now have better means of satisfying their unique mixes of common and individual interests, general-interest newspapers’ circulation and readership are declining, as are general-interest news program’s listenership and viewership. For the past 30 years, you can track those declines to match the rise of CATV, ‘niche’ magazines, and Internet access (the recent plummet in newspaper circulation began almost exactly when the majority of Americans got broadband access, ‘always-on’ access to this better way satisfying their individual mixes of interests).

Traditional newspapers are obsolete. The reason why the traditional newspaper deliver exactly the same package of stories to all readers isn’t because all readers want exactly the same package. It’s due to a limitation of the Industrial Era technologies still used to produce those newspapers: an analog press (like an analog broadcast transmitter) can only produce the same edition at one time. That’s the latent reason why a newspaper editor picks for publication mainly the stories that are of most common interest. For example, I’m a New York Times subscriber who’s a soccer and Formula One racing fan but I rarely see stories about those sports in that newspaper. Yet I know NYT receives entire wires devoted to daily events those sports (even the Swiss Intercantonal league, Turkish Third Div., etc.) because I was the Reuters executive in charge of delivering those to the Times. The NYT newsroom has the soccer stories I want, but doesn’t print them and instead prints baseball and American football stories, because its analog presses simply can’t produce editions that match each individual subscriber’s interests.

Though that limitation of analog presses doesn’t exist online, almost every newspaper is inadvertently transplanting it there. For most of the past ten years, I couldn’t get those soccer stories from NYTimes.com either, because it would publish online only the stories that appeared in print. (For the past four years I’ve been able to find the soccer wire on NYTimes.com but had to click half a dozen levels down into the site to find them.) Shoveling into online the same package of content for everyone doesn’t add value in a medium that people are using to satisfy their individual interests and needs.

Moreover, people ‘unpackage’ the traditional newspaper’s package of content online. A person who might have read the printed Willimantic Chronicle for national news because it’s the only printed daily available in Willimantic aren’t likely to read that paper’s website for national news, because they’ve got now access to NYTimes.com, CNN.com, etc. Ditto with national sports, business, international news, etc. They’ll use a newspaper’s website only for whatever that newspaper can uniquely do (which is local news in the most cases). This means that only a fraction of the traditional newspaper’s package of content has value online. That means people might be willing to pay, at most, only a fraction of the traditional price for it online (which fits within surveys that indicate people are willing to pay online for newspaper content, but no more than about $1 per mo.)

So if providing the same package of content for everyone doesn’t add value in a medium that people are using to satisfy their individual mixes of interests and that package is worth only a fraction online of what (fewer and fewer) people are willing pay for it in print, why do so many newspaper publishers still hope people will pay the same for it online as in print? Or pay something for just a slice of that traditional package?

The NYT at least realized that its columnists were a unique part of its traditional package, but wildly miscalculated the people would pay $50 per year for that. Some 227,000 people did, producing $10 milion per year in revenue for NYT, but they were only 1.6% of NYTimes.com’s 13M registered users and that revenue wasn’t much compared to its $300M in revenues. Pluse, lack of access meanwhile displeased the other 12.7M registered users.

The reason I mentioned soccer is that the stories exist that can satisfy each person’s unique mix of common and specific, but traditionally produced newspapers — in print and online — don’t deliver the right match to each person’s mix. It’s a distribution problem: the stories exist but aren’t getting to the right people. So, people are using new media to hunt for the mix that satisfies them, visiting many sites and using many different mechanisms. Eliminating their need to hunt is the business opportunity here for media companies. Google and Yahoo! know that, which is why they’re beginning to offer customizable services that can deliver from all sources stories that can match each user’s unique mix of common and specific interests.

Although services like that can be subsidized entirely by advertising, if people are willing to pay for anything online, it’s likely that they’d be willing to pay for a daily news service that uniquely matches each of their mix of common and specific interest. Would you be willing to pay $5 to $3 per month for a service that each day delivers exactly what you want from all news sources, trade journals, blogs, etc.? The technologies (structured data, etc.) to do this online already exist, but the problem is the news industry’s infrastructure is still based on the Industrial Era practices of producing the same thing for every users and producing it from only one brand.

Therein also lies the problem with most micropayment systems. You’d need a universal one to satisfy most people’s needs and interests. People aren’t going to use a different one for each site (even if it might serve a number sites). It’ll need to either be build into the infrastructure, not layered atop the status quo, or exist upstream of the consumer and built into whatever service ultimately delivers the customized service to her. In other words, the aggregation of micropayments would be done wholesale by whatever service charges the consumer the monthly macro-price.

A paid service for custom content would likely also feature advertising, except it would be advertising to match the person’s unique mix of interests. Such a service would be more valuable to both consumer and advertiser. [How to remedy the way that online marketers have blown consumers’ trust during the past 15 years is another matter.]

A unique printed edition for each user can also now be produced. Agfa and Oce are now manufacturing digital presses (i.e., giant inkjet printers) for newspapers that, when coupled to a database and templates, can produce an edition uniquely customized for each subscriber. (For example, the Agfa Dotrix press costs a fraction what an analog press does, requires only one operator, and can produce 20,000 newspaper copies per hour. That speed is fine for about 1,000 of the nation’s 1,450 dailies; larger ones need only buy multiple digital presses.) I know that MAN Roland and other manufacturers of traditional presses are likewise developing digital presses that would service larger newspapers. [Whether printed editions will soon be supplanted by e-paper is another matter.]

So, the era of one-to-many, of each person getting the same thing daily, is over. People aren’t going to pay for that online. Fewer and fewer people are continuing to pay for it in print. And if soon nobody’s going to pay for that package, then nobody’s going to pay much or anything for just a portion of that package.

Paid content isn’t dead; just payment for one-to-many content is. The problem is most people in the industry still think in only one-to-many terms, including those pundits who are hailing TimesSelect’s demise as the demise of paid content online.