By Frank Moher
We are beginning to see the outlines of the newspaper industry’s survival strategy, and it’s going to be this: since what we’ve been doing doesn’t work anymore, let’s go backwards and try something else that didn’t work. Namely, charging for online content.
The signs are everywhere. When John Stackhouse succeeded Edward Greenspon as Editor of The Globe and Mail last week, he advised readers that change is coming: “We think our journalism has a strong value for our users and we think that audience wants to pay for it directly or indirectly . . .” The idea of customers wanting to pay for anything strikes me as a bit rosy, but good luck to them. Rupert Murdoch, a more hard-bitten businessman, told his own Fox Business Network much the same thing, but allowed as how the online product will have to raise its game. “A [newspaper] website will be vastly improved, much more in them.”
The Globe, to its credit, has already begun to muscle-up its site. I don’t refer to the general redesign unveiled recently, which is par for the course, but to its new Toronto hub, with its tight integration of text, video, and cams (for traffic coverage), along with supplementary material from hyper-local online mag Torontoist. Presumably this is a template for what will happen with The Globe‘s other regional sections, which so far remain conspicuously old school.
Still, it will take a lot more than just some Web 2.0 bells-and-whistles to get people to pay — including, probably, live streaming and social media options that will make online newspapers better than TV, better than facebook, and a lot better than they are now.
Some say the move to charge for online content is an attempt to get people to start buying hardcopy newspapers again — you know, the ones you used to get from a box or have delivered to your home. (Remember them?) If so, this is precisely backwards. Nothing could be more reactionary, or downright dumb, than trying to drive readers back to a model that requires publishers to pay rocketing newsprint and distribution costs, relies on a collapsing and possibly discredited advertising model, and is lousy for the environment to boot. (The environment: remember that?) If anything, the big newspapers should adopt the model of many community papers and start giving a much slimmed-down version away for free (delivered to homes, please, to cut down on the litter problem), strictly as a loss-leader intended to drive readers to their (hopefully) much better websites.
Once again, Murdoch, damn him, sees where things are headed more clearly than most. “Instead of an analog paper printed on paper you may get it on a panel which would be mobile, which will receive the whole newspaper over the air, [and] be updated every hour or two,” he told FBN. He might also have mentioned reading it on your TV and in your car. And you thought people talking on their cellphone while driving is bad.
Murdoch also understands how long the shift will take. “I think it’s two or three years away before [these devices] get introduced in a big way and then it will probably take 10 years or 15 years for the public to swing over.” Meanwhile, there’s no point in retreating to the past. Newspapers need to move a lot more quickly than they’re used to moving, put off this charging for online content idea until their online content is a lot better, and dig in for the long haul.