Newspaper executives met in semi-secrecy this week to ponder collaborative solutions to the industry’s troubles.
They heard a big idea from Alan Mutter called ViewPass, a subscription service that would be jointly owned by publishers. ViewPass would aggregate editorial content and collect visitor data that could be used to sell higher-priced ads.
Mutter’s network, which he has been building quietly over the last few months with collaborator Ridgely Evers, would create profiles of paying subscribers based upon information they volunteer as well as their reading habits. It would provide a means to monetize content through subscriptions and micro-payments but, more importantly, would develop rich information about members over time. Mutter estimates that a system like this could more than double the CPMs that publishers charge advertisers. There would also be a penalty for content providers who abused copyright: they would be booted off the system. The Nieman Journalism lab has a two-page PDF description, if you’re interested.
Attendees at the meeting also discussed ideas for regulating the reuse of content along the lines of a model deployed for nearly a century by the music business. Music publishers license songs to bars, radio stations, shopping malls other outlets through organizations that represent the copyright holders. The best known of these is ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and Broadcast Music). Outlets can buy blanket licenses to play copyrighted works in public, with composers and performers getting a percentage of the fees.
The big concern with any consortium is legality, but The Wall Street Journal quotes several experts on antitrust law saying that the music industry experience is a valuable precedent for the news industry. If publishers argue that the survival of their industry depends upon regulating fair use of their content, the Justice Department would be hard-pressed to object to a consortium.
A Different View
On the other hand, a lot of people think the paid-content debate is pointless flailing. Xark’s Dan Conover writes a blistering critique of the industry’s search for salvation. Rather than changing the existing model, he writes, publishers are fumbling around for a solution that requires readers to fundamentally change their behavior. People aren’t going to start paying for something they’re accustomed to getting for free, so the debate is simply hastening the demise of the industry by delaying the search for useful solutions. Innovation requires examining all possible alternatives, and newspaper publishers aren’t the kind of people to do that. “They’ll do anything to survive… so long as it doesn’t involve change,” he writes.
Conover makes the point that pay walls involves a trade-off: the more you charge, the fewer people come to the website. Lower traffic means lower advertising revenue and the income from readers won’t make up the difference. Tim Windsor weighs in with a comment noting an earlier column he wrote at the Nieman Journalism Lab documenting that traffic declines after the imposition of pay walls at could be on the order of 95%.
“When the Los Angeles Times walled off its entertainment content in 2003, ‘total visitors to the site — people who read and interacted with content — plunged from a high of 729,000 in July 2003, the month before the wall went up, to about 19,000 total registered visitors. That’s a drop of 97% in actual audience.”
Our Two Cents
The newspaper industry’s paid content debate sounds more and more like the desperate protests of the music industry when file-sharing began to dismantle its business model. The two industries have some characteristics in common. Both are mature, traditionally stable and highly profitable businesses with predictable growth and high barriers to entry. The people who gravitate to such industries excel at managing costs and limiting risk.
These are the last people you want to run operations at a time of crisis. Crisis demands innovative thinking, fast reaction times and tolerance for risk. One reason we’ve seen so little of this in the newspaper industry is that the people at the top have no capacity for making dramatic changes. The innovation that we’ve seen comes almost entirely from startups or skunkworks operations that publishers have had the sensibility to leave alone.
Paid-content models may gain some limited traction in markets that place a high premium on a certain kind of content. Bloomberg continues to charge high fees for information because it innovates so well in the ways it analyzes and presents it. But that’s Wall Street. It’s hard to believe that much of what now appears in newspapers is going so compelling that the average consumer is going to pay for it. Hyper-local and database content may have more commercial appeal but a lot of newspapers will need to change the way they gather and publish content in order to cash in on that opportunity.
The industry is still too dependent on advertising. Ideas to squeeze more blood from that stone have value, but they aren’t going to alter the economics of a fundamentally broken industry.
Consider the analysis from Moody’s Investors Service Senior Analyst John Puchalla, who says high costs are squeezing the life out of the newspaper industry. Only 14% of the industry’s costs are related to content creation, Puchalla says. Unless the number can be brought down significantly, the high fixed costs, combined with crushing debt loads, will make it impossible for publishers to acquire new funding. Debt ratings will continue to sink, making capital even more expensive. Cross industry collaboration and outsourcing could lighten some of the burden, but it will be very difficult for publishers to compete with the vastly superior cost structure of online media.
This entry was posted on Friday, June 5th, 2009 at 10:38 am and is filed under Advertising, BusinessModel, NewMedia, Newspapers, OnlineMedia, Solutions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.