Its Time To ‘Disintermediate’ Newspapers

Sept 2011 - New NW BW crop for social mediaBy Nigel Walley

I love newspapers and am probably an ‘over-consumer’ of both free and paid content.  I believe and value good journalism, and I pay online subscriptions for 3 daily newspapers and 3 monthly ones. I read them all on my iPad and desktop PC, jumping between the two depending on circumstances.  However, my purchasing behaviour is erratic and during the recent US presidential election I realised that I could easily be persuaded to pay for more if it wasn’t for some basic retail hurdles.

As I was following coverage of the election I found I was regularly following links to articles from US journals on Twitter. I often used up my weekly allowance of free articles on US sites like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the New Yorker and came to quite like the idea of subscribing to them.  On each of them I frequently hit the page where they wanted me to sign-up and the sums involved were small, but I didn’t.  The overwhelming reason was I just couldn’t be bothered with yet another online relationship to manage.

Content suppliers (whether broadcast channels or newspapers) need to understand how tired and bored we all are of setting up and managing new online accounts.  Password management alone puts me off buying more content. Some newspapers demand you include punctuation in your password while another demands you don’t. Some newspapers keep you logged-in, and some don’t.  For those of us who run a password system in our heads its maddening.   Also, the customer service on newspaper sites and apps is so poor that I can never work out what I have subscribed to, when the subscription runs out or how I paid the last time.  The idea of filling out another registration form drives me to distraction. I would rather sit on broken glass.

This is costing the newspapers money.  My spending on books has skyrocketed since opening a Kindle account on my iPad. Amazon make it so easy to buy and read e-books. My spending on paid journalism would also skyrocket if the papers just sorted out their commerce infrastructure and created a unified front end with the same ease of use. Amazon One-Click for Kindle books is the model that the newspaper industry has to match.

I want a Sky or Amazon-like company to bring all my newspaper accounts together and create this kind of service.   I want full access to all the newspaper content I currently buy, but with a unified account and billing infrastructure.  I want them to and sell me flexible packages and I want the ability to add other bits of content, UK or US, on a short term basis without having to fill in a complete account form again. And if this new aggregator was really good at its job it would offer me an EPG that presented my journals whole, or broken up into themes and recommendations. This aggregator could innovate around functionality, letting me save all my favourited articles from various journals, in a single place and letting me search across them.

People consume different newspapers and journals in the same way we consume different TV channels and VOD providers.  But the TV aggregation model has made it easier to roam across a wider range of providers.  The average person uses approximately 7 broadcast channels on a regular basis but only 2.5 printed journals. Newspapers should be looking to double that number through digitisation, not moaning about loss of print revenues. Aggregating the commerce function is the way forward.

Why should we believe that it is better for a single ‘platform’ to aggregate all my different TV relationships behind a single log-in and payment structure, if I don’t believe the same about my digital newspaper consumption.  They are both just a collection of digital content providers with apps.   The newspaper industry has experimented with micro-payments for articles to limited effect because they were all doing it separately.  Consumers don’t want 15 separate micro-payment relationships. They just want one, with great account management.  The TV industry learned the lesson on the big screen, and is slowly coming round to the same lesson on the small, smart screens.

Its also important to state that we are not talking about dis-aggregation of the kind tried by Apple News or Facebook, where the newspaper proposition is broken up into articles and our sense of the newspaper as a complete channel is destroyed. Right now the newspapers are saddled with this model without the unifying benefits of a good aggregating interface.

When pay TV first arrived in the UK, the broadcast industry experienced a decade of pain as ‘disintermediation’ by the new platform operators that arrived with it changed their relationship with the viewer.  However, the result was a dramatic increase in TV consumption and the introduction of new revenue streams into the industry.  We had been assured that the UK television viewer would not pay for TV in the same way we are now being told that people won’t pay for print.  But many are now paying £60-£70 a month for TV and are really happy to, because platforms treat them like a valuable ‘customer’ not just a viewer  Print has to learn from video here – we are customers not just readers but newspapers (like broadcasters) are poor at customer service. They need a specialist to step in between them and the customer.

As the newspaper industry makes the evolution to web and apps, it needs to adopt the TV aggregation model if it is to extract the full value of the digital revolution. People WILL pay for good journalism – you just have to sort out the commercial model.  However, the newspapers may not be the ones to do it.

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