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Most of you know there’s a big debate regarding whether newspapers should charge for online content. (I don’t believe they should). But that’s an argument being had among the big boys. It obscures the more pressing debate — should newspaper put all of their valuable content online?

If a newspaper has competition within its market — from a strong television presence or another newspaper company — then it should have a strategy that puts its breaking news information online free, but pushes users to revenue-generating products, There’s little reason to put all content online. (The Star Tribune has figured that out. They’re holding back some of their prime Sunday content as “print exclusives.” and I hope they make that standard operating procedure.)

But we forget that most newspapers aren’t part of these debates. They’re in towns like Delphos Ohio, Cullman Alabama or Boscobel Wisconsin. Products like these don’t have meaningful local media competition, so users have to go to their newspapers for information.

If those companies don’t have to put information online, they shouldn’t, by in large. I say “by in larger” because they can offer a website with minimal information. For example, they could list the scores of the high school football game but give no other information. While the town will be abuzz about the score, there’s only one place for customers to go to read comments from the star player, coaches, and the opposition. To get that, you have to buy a newspaper.

There’s also an opportunity for more revenue. Small town people are big on high school sports information, I think there’s a big opportunity to create an advertiser-supported and revenue-producing email newsletter with more details than the online site, but less than the newspaper site. There also a chance to create online-only subscription section of certain hot-button topics. All of this is passé for most of the larger newspapers. But for the smaller guy, many haven’t gotten their yet.

Here’s hoping they do.

My blog will now appear Monday, Wednesday and Friday since those are the days it gets the most traffic. I’ll be happy to expand that to Saturdays if the demand warrants.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined that the Kindle could change American reading habits. I buy that. Then, Information Week followed that with a headline that said: How the Kindle will save newspapers.

I’m not buying that one. Not by a long shot.

Here’s why. The Kindle design, right now, isn’t newspaper friendly. It’s hard to read a newspaper on a device that’s built for books. The current Kindle version doesn’t support photos, video or graphics, The Kindle costs about the same or more than netbooks, and newspapers don’t reap much of a financial benefit since Kindle keeps a lion’s share of the subscription revenue.

Recently, Amazon announced it’s coming out with a larger version of the Kindle in Q4 2009, a version that’s supposed to be more newspaper friendly. That release date coincides with planned trials of the Plastic Logic e-reader in Detroit. And, who knows? Maybe the Hearst-based First Paper will be out by then, too, and Fujitsu will try to enter the US market.

Hopefully, all of these companies — and others — will come up with viable e-readers. That way, the competition will drive down e-reader prices charged to newspapers and result in more equitable revenue sharing models.

For media companies, I think that’s the real value of Kindle’s move. The Kindle, by itself, will not save newspapers. But it’s going to help create competition that will lead to more favorable terms for media companies. If that is indeed true, then let’s get as much competition as we can.

My blog appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week.

There are three digital and technology transformations happening very soon that have the potential to change the way media companies deliver information to their users.

NETBOOKS: PC sales are down 7.1% worldwide in Q1 2009. But computer makes hope Netbooks — smaller, trimmed down versions of a PC terrific for web browsing and email — help turn that around. You can buy a netbook now for under $300, but those prices will go lower. Last December, Acer offered a $99 netbook provided users signed a two-year wireless data plan with AT&T. As the wireless carriers get involved, expect to see similar deals at equally low prices.

Netbooks could provide the push for newspaper companies still reluctant to dive into online journalism. We sometimes forget that the newspaper world is not ruled by the big boys, and that there are thousands of healthy, vibrant weeklies and small dailies that provide information to their communities. Many of these would like to get into the online world, but they find the cost of entry prohibitive. They can’t afford to buy a bunch of laptops their reporters can lug to local football games. Would inexpensive netbooks make a difference? I think so. Most of these smaller properties only want to (and only should) post limited and select content online. They could have a couple of “pool” netbooks with an internet connection that would allow for real time updates — and do it for a price they’d find more affordable.

E-readers: These are coming faster than Superman changing in a booth. In the last month alone, Fujitsu began selling its e-reader — designed for newspapers — in Japan. Detroit newspapers and USAToday have signed on with Plastic Logic for its still unreleased e-reader device. Amazon, seeing the new competition, announced it would release a bigger version of the Kindle in Q4 2009.

As I’ve said in the past, e-readers are not a panacea for what ails media companies. But they are an important part of the equation, and more and more companies are going to try to get into this potentially lucrative market.

IPHONE: This has kind of flown under the radar. But USAToday recently reported that Apple has extended it’s agreement, though 2010, to be the exclusive IPhone distributor. I’ve not found anyone who dislikes an IPhone … they just dislike the monthly costs, which can easily exceed $100 per month per phone. If AT&T loses its exclusivity after 2010, and Apple decides to make the phone more widely available to other wireless carriers, we’re sure to see prices drop dramatically. Lower prices would mean a increased adoption rate among users, increasing Apple’s market share (currently about 8% for IPhones). It’s tremendously easy to get information on an IPhone — whether it be text, video, or sound — and media companies would have to react by creating content suitable for the phones (and not just taking current online content and putting in on a smartphone).

There are other things happening that promise to change the game. But these three are big one, and a newspaper’s digital operations should have someone keeping tabs on what’s happening.

I’ve blogged a lot — and will blog more — about the next generation of e-readers and how newspapers are salivating at the prospects of a device that could help change their revenue model and lead them back to a path of profitability.

But if there’s one thing we know about technology, it is that it constantly changes, and that change brings disruption. So as Plastic Logic, Fujitsu, First Paper and IRex get ready to release these large screen (8 1/2 by 11)  and newspaper friendly devices, there’s a nemisis right around the corner that could derail everyone’s plans.

Netbooks are here, and they’re loaded for bear.  Sales jumped in 2008 and slowed in Q1 2009, though I think that slowdown in sales can be linked to the global recession. Netbooks are very light — generally under 3 pounds — and very cheap — under $300, or sometimes much less if tied to a cellular phone contract.

The new e-readers? Right now, they are simply promises. Plastic Logic and First Paper each promise devices with larger screens that will display newspaper and magazine content better than Amazon’s Kindle. But neither have a firm date on when those devices will be available. Plastic Logic, which has signed trial agreements with Detroit newspapers and USAToday,  plans to make an announcement in January 2010. Kindle, seeing the competition, announced it’s coming out with its own larger screen version in Q4 2009.

But here’s the potential problem with the e-readers: Cost. Netbooks can be had for as little as $99. Fujitsu costs $1,000 US; IRex costs almost $900. The early Kindle versions are about $359, and there’s no word on how much the Plastic Logic or First Paper products will cost.

So here’s the challenge: Why would a suddenly cost-conscience public, battered by the worst economy since the 1930s, spend, potentially, more money on an e-reader when they can get the same — or more — with a netbook?

Stay tuned. This is going to get very interesting.

Information reinvention is happening right before our eyes.

Detroit started it with its home delivery cut that lead to a rise in online useage. The Star Tribune decided it would hold back some web content and offer its readers print exclusives. Advance announced it would shut the Ann Arbor News in favor of a strong, community oriented web site.

And that’s not all. A group of former reporters from the Seattle PI have started SeattlePostGlobe.org, a partnership with the local PBS station and weekly newspaper. TrueSlant.com has started a model in which local bloggers make money based on the number of readers they draw to the site.

All of these are clearly experiments. For an industry loathe to take chances, experimentation is all of a sudden hotter than an August day in Miami.

We know the traditional newspaper revenue model, in many markets, is dead, which puts our ability to provide information to our communities at risk. Every one of the above experiments are excellent ways to begin gathering information and better understand what the public will pay for in this new digital information age.

The SeatlleGlobe is a good example. It appears they hope ads and donations will keep them afloat. Innovative partnerships with non-profit TV helps them solicit donations that can be written off by donors. Donations for journalism could raise some impartiality questions — what if a donor wanted a story quashed, or more attention paid to a minor matter that the trained journalists normally wouldn’t cover? But, maybe those are old questions that have no place in a new information world.

And there are real questions whether any of these experiments will work. I think the Star Tribune and Detroit have the best chance. Despite the tough times, each have money behind them, and they can shift their substantial resources to bolster their new efforts.

I really admire what the SeatllePostGlobe and TrueSlant are trying to do. But it’s tough getting advertisers to support new sites, and it’s harder to find a stable of donors willing to consistently pay newspaper subscription prices for an online product. SeattlePostGlobe hopes donors will pay $240 a year each — about the cost of a Seattle Post Intelligencer subscription. Tough as it is, you have to admire their grit and determination — two qualities that will keep journalism thriving.

All of these experiments have tremendous value to the digital industry. While they won’t work in total, there will be pieces of each that will work, pieces that we can incoporate in our digital strategies. These pieces will help lead media companies into the digital information reinvention that’s happening right before us.

A couple of years ago, the newspaper industry went ga-ga over hyperlocal coverage.

Remember that?

All e-paper sites had to do was create web site channels specific to their individual communities. Not only would audience skyrocket, but locals would be so happy with this new product they’d contribute photos, events and news tidbits to a site that would be chock full of local information.

E-paper sites quickly jumped on the bandwagon, creating, in some cases, dozens of these hyperlocal sites. And guess what? They really don’t work.

There’s a couple of reasons for this. People do like to read about the communities they care about, but those same users don’t post much information. Newspaper staffs, stretched as they are, don’t have the resources to sustain a vibrant hyperlocal site. While the site might do okay audience wise, the lack of consistent and new information means the site can’t grow to the levels the e-paper thought it could.

Then there’s the advertising issue. Few hyperlocal sites make money. The New York Times noted this in a recent story. I’m aware of a couple of hyperlocal sites that have significant audience and make money — ibrattleboro.com and buffalorising.com. Here’s the kicker — both are independently owned and not tied to a newspaper. They’ve each figured out what their communities want, they give it to them, and they’ve convinced local advertisers they’re the authoritative, hyperlocal voice.

Instead of trying to focus on hyperlocal, e-paper sites should focus on two things: being the breaking news leader in their markets, and differentiating between their products. Breaking news that keeps users up to date will also keep them coming back. Differentiating between what news we put in the newspaper, online and on mobile helps push users to all of your different offering on all of your different platforms. The more eyeballs to our various platforms, the more money we’ll make.

Both of those are much better options that continually chasing the false promise of hyperlocal.

Amazon announced this week that it’s going to release a larger version of its apparently popular Kindle. I say apparently because Amazon doesn’t release sales figures for Kindle. This new version is supposed to be more suitable for newspapers because it’ll have a larger reading surface. Also, this new, bigger Kindle version could hit the market later this year — before the much-hyped Plastic Logic e-reader. No one really knows when the under-the-radar First Paper e-reader — the one backed by Hearst — will launch.

I think that Kindle will have a hard time attracting newspapers and magazines to be engaged with a bigger Kindle product. Kindle completely controls its product — you buy it through Amazon, which sets subscription costs for newspapers and then keeps a lion’s share of the money. If Plastic Logic or First Paper can come up with a more equitable revenue share that offers a better distribution model, I see media companies flocking to them, first. (Of course, newspapers will always want to be on Kindle because of the extra exposure. Kindle just won’t be the primary option.)

What do you think?

Media companies should pay heed to two products that could help solve the woes that ail newspapers.

The products — e-readers — promise to be a flexible, portable, and electronic version of the current paper products — provided they work. The say they’ll be 8 ½ by 11, significantly larger than the current crop of e-readers like the Kindle, which are more suited for reading books. A larger screen could be more suited to a newspaper’s design.

Detroit recently announced a trial with one of the e-readers, the one made by Plastic Logic. Plastic Logic, through its website, is aggressively marketing its device. Unfortunately, there’s precious little information about exactly how it will work, when it will be available in trials and general release, how much it will cost, and the content distribution model. I recently attended a Plastic Logic demonstration, and it was clear the company is still trying to figure out the details while it touts its product.

More quietly, the Hearst-backed First Paper promises to come out with a similar product. While Plastic Logic is making as much industry noise as it can, First Paper is taking the opposite approach — it’s flying under the radar, sort of like the stealth reader.

Despite a number of important, unanswered questions, the media industry is buzzing about the potential of both products. A flexible, wireless device with a large-screen display that can accommodate a newspaper does have a certain appeal. (The devices also say users can add subscriptions to other newspapers and magazines, and check their email, too).

That appeal gets stronger as media companies look for ways to increase revenue and cut costs. Theoretically, if the adoption rate of these e-readers take off, newspapers can cut paper and distribution costs.

But I think that’s a ways off. In the interim, media companies should learn as much about these new digital devices as they can. They should be ahead of the game, like Detroit, and not bring up the rear. There are number of avenues for learning about the potential of these devices and whether they hold true promise for the industry, I’ll be blogging about these readers often.

There’s a lot of discussion about whether e-paper sites should charge for online content. Reflections of a Newsosaur reports that a group of publishers recently, and very quietly, met to lay the groundwork for charging for at least some of their online content. This is going on at the same time the Associated Press has gone guns-a-blazin’ against what it sees as content piracy online (more on that on my next blog)

Revenue 2.0 takes a different approach, and says charging for online content isn’t the way to financial stability. It offers a four-step approach for e-paper sites.

I side with the very smart people participating in Revenue 2.0. I’ve said before that some in the industry are lurching toward a paid content model that we’ve already proved doesn’t work. Instead, we need another approach. While Revenue 2.0 is on the right track, we need to take another step.

We need to clearly differentiate our free and paid content, and use all of our digital platforms to push users, as best we can, to paid.

Here’s the problem. Many newspapers take their content and put it on all of their platforms. So what’s in the newspaper is also online and also on mobile.

That’s a mistake.

Newspapers readers are different from online users who are different from mobile users. They don’t want the same things and they don’t want the same amount of information. Newspaper readers want longer pieces and features. Online users want breaking news and updates. Mobile users want specific bits of information in small, 140 character bites.

What we should do is better differentiate between content, give our users the content they need based on platform, and push those free users to paid.

Online, let’s give short updates and breaking news, and push users to print for more details. If you take a look at your online metrics, you’ll probably see that users don’t spend much time with more in-depth pieces. So let’s stop giving it to them. Push them to the paying newspaper for that information.

Same with mobile. Users might use their phones for a specific sports score, a specific stock, a specific weather forecast. Figure out those three or so pieces of information they want, give it to them, and push them to paid.

There’s not one solution to the problems we face. The ideas from Revenue 2.0 are one piece. Differentiation could well be another.

Every now and then, I’ll highlight what other blogs are saying, in a mostly twitter short form. Here’s a first pass. Let me know if you’d like to see other blogs highlighted here

Steve Yelvington says small talk helps build online communities. (www.yelvington.com)

Chris McMahon has posted powerpoints on using technology to cover your beat, and to get a job (http://www.chrismcmahonmsj.com)

Robert Ivan and Peter Zollman are blogging from the America East technology conference

Alan Mutter writes about how publishers are zeroing in on plans to charge for content (http://newsosaur.blogspot.com/2009/04/publishers-zero-in-on-charging-for.html)

Those are just of the few interesting pieces I’ve read. More to come