I was following some people who were talking in different forums, on twitter, and on blogs, about Walter Isaacson’s cover story in TIME magazine this month. I was pretty harsh in saying that these organizations basically deserve whatever they get, because they refuse to recognize that society has changed in ways that make their old business models obsolete. As a follow up, I thought I’d list some things newspapers might be able to do to keep themselves afloat.
1. Develop an iTunes-like application devoted to reading content in general, and newspapers specifically. What if Adobe Acrobat reader allowed you to pay for content you viewed on behalf of the content publisher? Or, what if iTunes embedded a newspaper-reading application to iTunes, and added a “Periodicals” section to its iTunes store? In my opinion, leveraging an existing application with existing mindshare like iTunes would be a big win for newspapers, but it has at least one big issue: most people get their news online at work, not at home, and most large enterprises disable a user’s ability to install software.
2. Develop a Safari-like application, but change the payment/subscription details. O’Reilly & Associates publishing uses Safari to empower readers by making their entire library, and the libraries of several other publishers, available in their entirety online. Fully searchable, bookmarkable… it pretty much rocks. Newspapers could do this as well, but they’d likely want to change the pricing/charging model, but the changes that would be made are pretty obvious and probably pretty easy to implement, so I won’t cover them here.
3. Maximize ad revenue through content classification. I’ve never heard of this being done, but in a world where advertisers have more options to help them save costs, and papers can reap greater rewards from advertisers who demand top billing alongside top-tier content, everybody wins. Yes, this does mean investing in technology, which newspapers talk a lot about, but I fail to see it.
4. Stop printing. Here’s the thing: if printed dailies die off, there’s still going to be news. Instead of hanging onto a dead medium for daily news, take the lead, drop print, and use the huge sums of money currently being funneled off into real estate, machinery, labor, paper, and ink, and put them to much better use by by investing in technologies and people who know how to take full advantage of technology and social media to increase earnings.
5. Start competing with aggregators. Be a better aggregator. Or, buy the aggregators. Or hire the aggregators. But certainly, stop whining about the aggregators. I’m not familiar with all of the legal copyright issues involved with publishers who aggregate news, but I know that news sites are allowed to link to other news sites, and use aggregation services themselves to provide related content on other sites. The BBC’s site points to numerous other worldwide news sources for its ‘related stories’.
6. Change how newspaper delivery works. I don’t subscribe to a newspaper because I would probably only read it twice per week and the paper doesn’t deliver twice per week. They deliver every day. Want me to get delivery of a paper? Put something next to my mailbox where the paper will be delivered to, and give me the option of either having you pick up the unread papers left behind every day, or having you pick them up on some fixed day of the week. I sold newspapers door-to-door in high school. I can’t tell you how many people said “I won’t read it, and then it’ll pile up and I’ll have to recycle it – it’s a hassle”.
7. Let me donate portions of my subscription for delivery to public sites for free. Some papers won’t sell you just the Friday-Sunday paper. Some won’t sell you just the Sunday paper. You get the whole week, like it or not. Lots of people only really care about the Sunday paper, so why not at least give them the option of getting that one delivered to their house, and having the other papers delivered to some local public place for people to read for free. Gets the paper into more hands, and relieves me of the papers I don’t want piling up around the house.
8. Go with magazines. Put the newspaper online, and start focusing on magazine content that comes out monthly or weekly instead of daily. Make the magazine available in PDF format for subscribers as well. I can tell you from having been involved in magazines that a) many magazines don’t understand technology. b) the ones that do are doing great, and c) even the ones that don’t aren’t hurting. Sure, some have gone under, but the ones I know of that went under recently had big internal problems for years. Anyway, I for one would consider subscribing to the NYT Magazine if they offered a separate subscription.
9. Do more community building. What newspapers call community building is similar to what everyone else called community building about 10 years ago. Communities – (real communities, not marketing facades) – are extremely valuable to your publication(s), and communities might find ways you can add value to their lives as well. Embrace symbiotic relationships.
10. Give it all away. If you make everything free, give free access to your content, deliver the paper for free, make it available on planes, trains, in libraries, coffee shops, the bank, and everywhere else, and make an API available for developers to use so they can do interesting things with your content that you and I can’t even imagine right now, then your paper will be in more hands, read and referenced by more people, there will be more links back to your site, about 80 million times more good will result, and you can use the propagation of both physical and digital media to justify increased advertising revenue.
11. Ok, an extra one. If you make everything free, you could consider the NPR model of doing “membership” drives. Membership in a community that supports the news sounds a whole lot better to me than “subscription”. Seems to have worked quite well for wikipedia, as well as NPR.
12. Just came to mind: Brand a television station. Why is there no WNYT?
The point I’m making isn’t that I have all of the ideas. The point is that most of these things are pretty obvious (only a couple are slightly far-fetched). I just cannot believe that none of these ideas ever came up in a board room. If that’s the case, then maybe some of these places *should* die off, because the managers are failing to be innovative, or management has failed to foster creativity and innovation in their organizations.
I think publishing in general has problems with innovation — it’s not just newspapers. I think one of the biggest issues is inertia. Nobody wants to be the first to take a leap, especially when it means potentially decommissioning things in which there are huge existing investments.