Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Looking to a fourth way to ensure a viable news media

The product hasn't changed much since
1942, when this photo was taken
Newspapers still have a patchy relationship with social media. There are quite a lot of self-identifying journalists on Twitter now, after a rocky start, and even Facebook has begun a campaign of sorts to draw them into its web. The relationship wasn’t always as healthy as it is now.

Back in September 2009, I wrote a story about how the media were talking about Facebook. Not long after it was published the media began to change its tune, so the story was a little late, but never mind. I didn’t talk about Twitter in it because I wanted to restrict my focus so that the story kept itself short enough for the target website. Then six months later, in March 2010, I wrote another story, about how the mainstream media were using and thinking about social media. Both stories tell a tale that is unfortunately characterised by a slow pace of adaptation. And I think that the disaggregation that social media promotes remains a problem for media companies today, in 2012, rather than being perceived by managers to offer a solution to the fundamental problem of monetisation.

Fairfax, the big Australian media company that hosted the event which formed the basis for the second story I have linked to above, has done a bit better by readers than has News Ltd, the Australian arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. News Ltd has started charging for stories at its flagship The Australian website using a proprietary login method. Fairfax recently started enabling readers to log into their masthead websites, which could be the first step down the track to charging to read. But at least Fairfax allows readers to login using Twitter or Facebook, rather than encumbering them with the need to remember another set of login details. This is a good move, as it demonstrates awareness inside the company of reader preferences.

As a journalist myself I sympathise with the step taken by The Australian. Readers should pay for content. But just charging them a subscription fee while retaining the corporate infrastructure underpinning the news-gathering and -publishing process seems, to me, a bit lame. Surely there are other ways to engage with readers. We know by reading down past the end of online news stories to the comments section that there is a huge appetite among readers for more involvement in the news process. And this appetite is as visible again within the confines of social media.

Rupert Murdoch has his own Twitter account now. So do a lot of working journalists. But what about the editors who provide so much of the direction a newspaper follows? Where are they? They’re at their desks, old-school, answering emails and working to ensure the next day’s edition gets published. They are not on Twitter, engaging with the audience, as the working journalists are. They are firewalled away from the action taking place in social media. I think that until these individuals start to engage with their audience in social media their companies will just continue to privately express regret at the relentless disaggregation of the publications they work at, and do nothing to address the monetisation problem.

Twitter is, of course, appearing in the news. Journalists talk about how the Twitterverse reacts to particular stories. But that’s it. There’s no attempt to extract opinion in the aggregate from Twitter, which could be done if a newspaper decided to build a curation engine for inhouse use. Such an application could be used to drive the editorial process, even in such a limited way as helping to refine the agenda for the following day’s output. With eyes on the interface, journalists could also pinpoint specific individuals who could be interviewed for any follow-up story.

But that’s not all they could do. Live curation of information already happens, for example, and to a limited degree, on the Guardian website. This company often runs a live blog for developing stories, with updates every few minutes. The rate of refresh of the displayed data this entails, ensures editorial consistency and accountability while supplying readers with new information on a regular basis. And it’s a model that could be used by all media companies who decide to give social media curation a whirl. Readers on social media want to be involved, they ask cogent questions, they are intelligent and often better informed than the journalist writing the story.

The monetisation problem still remains. Readers balking at keeping track of multiple passwords will be a major barrier for news media companies. What’s needed is a micro-payment engine that lots of media companies across the board could deploy on their websites. The workflow has to be as simple as Fairfax’s website login design: click on the short URL in Twitter, click to pay ten cents or twenty cents – this would be a small screen that pops up and that would be delivered by the transaction provider – and read the story. No logging in, no fuss, no barrier. Google could provide this service, as the search engine company already provides services linked to the Gmail account of each user. Whether news media companies want to give more cash to Google, however, is another issue.

There seem to me to be four levels of media engagement with social media. The first level is not working; just pushing out stories and letting readers access them for free is unsustainable for media companies. This is the model most media companies follow but they cannot continue to just give their content away for free. The second level is a login-with-subscription method. This seems unimaginative and also unsustainable because readers will just bypass these websites. A third way is micro-payments using Google as the transaction service. Everyone, in practical terms, possesses a Gmail account, so why not piggyback off this existing infrastructure to enable small payments for individual stories in a way that does not put readers off clicking?

But there’s also a fourth way. This method of engaging with readers while ensuring continued profitability involves curating the chatter that takes place in the Twitterverse, drawing on the opinions expressed there, and accessing the expertise that it will inevitably lead to. How this would be done is hard to say, but media companies need to start thinking about developing user interfaces that link editorial material with the conversation that is happening in real time. If it was successful they could charge for it.

When tablet devices started to be talked about there was a lot of anticipation in media companies starved of cashflow. Managers thought they saw a new income stream. It didn’t happen. The reason it didn’t happen is not because the devices were unpopular. The reason it didn’t happen is because media companies were unwilling to change their content production methods. If you want new income streams you need to offer new products, and this is something that media companies have signally failed to do.

They have journalists but they need to bring in more developers so that they can build new interfaces that allow them to really engage with what’s happening in the real world. Twitter is not a fad. It’s not going away. It’s where people like to spend time. Unless media companies start to think up new ways to interact with this growing constituency they will continue to stagnate financially. If the media fails and falls, we will all be worse off.


Anonymous said...

All these pieces on how newspapers are failing omit to report that titles in developing countries report that paid readership and revenues are increasing.

A more accurate question than 'why are newspapers struggling' might be 'why are Western newspapers struggling?'

The developing world is more 'wired' than is often thought (although more by phone than PC), so my contention is that if newspapers are more necessary to people in developing countries, the place to look for an answer is at the content, not how that content is delivered.

The West tends to look down on the developing world, but it's publishers may be doing something right. Or, *shdders*, is it that fat, comfortable societies don't really need newspapers all that much?

Anonymous said...
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