Monthly Archives: February 2009

Walter Isaacson doesn’t know how to save your newspaper

Walter Isaacson, writing this month’s Time cover story, hopes that 2009 will see the dawn of ‘a bold, old idea’ for funding newspapers online.  Micropayments.  It is an old idea, it’s true.  Clay Shirky made the case against micropayments back in 2000, and Andrew Odlyzkow in 2003.  Isaacson makes the point that Apple have made a success of a micropayment system through iTunes:

Steve Jobs got music consumers (of all people) comfortable with the concept of paying 99 cents for a tune instead of Napsterizing an entire industry

and neatly elides the point that illegal (free) downloading far outstrips any kind of legal, micropayment driven download service.  Making the point that iTunes makes money from micropayments; ergo, newspapers should charge per article ignores the fact that music isn’t one kind of orange, and newspaper content just another kind of, slightly cheaper, orange.  While, say, the work of star columnists might be comparable to music – as in, something a consumer will seek out, and consequently might be willing to pay for – the constantly shifting product of news desks is not something people will seek out, and pay to keep.  That 99 cent for an iTunes track is a payment for something you can listen to again and again.  A news story isn’t something you rediscover when your ipod’s on shuffle six months down the line.  Paying half a cent for it is half a cent too much, and not only because of its built in redundancy.

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Media Revolution: Stop Press? Stop this..

One does wonder sometimes.  Why a half-hour piece (Media Revolution: Stop Press?, BBC2, Feb 5th) about the decline of the newspaper industry should open with Janet Street Porter pretending to deliver newspapers to South London houses; ‘Ooh, there’s a dog in this one’.  Did I miss the line in the listings that read this was a Newsround special?  After a nail-biting encounter with a recording of a barking dog, JSP gave us the figures: circulations down 10-20%; advertising down 20% over ten years; hundreds of journalists made redundant; 50 or more titles closed in the past year.  What can be done, Janet?

Take a trip to El Vino’s on Fleet Street – the latter described, over romantic archive shots of newspapermen in shirt sleeves, as having once been ‘the beating heart of the world’.  El Vino’s, meanwhile, ‘was like a second office’ to many of those newspapermen.  Fine.  Great, in fact.  But harking back misty-eyed to the halcyon days of print isn’t going to get anyone out of this mess any time soon.  (‘To the newsagent!  We must buy a newspaper so the chaps on Fleet St can drink the day away!  It’s our civic duty!’.  Nah, didn’t think so.)  Derek Jameson, a man who surely knows his online onions, is asked what he thinks the future holds (no jokes about retirement homes and liquid food, please – bit of respect).  He doesn’t think there’s much of a threat from the internet – newspapers have been through revolutions before, and survived every time.  Like with radio after World War II.  Quite.

Then to News International’s new printing presses in Hertfordshire, the biggest in the world.  They can print 86,000 newspapers an hour, up from 30,000 in Wapping.  An interview with Rupert Murdoch fails to have him answer the question ‘Why?’, the answer to which would surely have been an interesting one.  Instead, JSP speculates that the facility to print in full colour afforded by the new presses might be the answer to declining circulations and advertising.  Yes, yes, that’s it.

McFly are interviewed.  I’ll leave that line there unexplained a minute for comedy bamboozle value.

Apart from the online threat, freesheets are hacking into newspapers’ circulation base.  But would people pay for them?  Of course they wouldn’t, they’re purposely as rubbish as it can get away with because they’re free.  Regardless, this question can only be answered by a vox-pop in a busy train station.  A breathless JSP corrals commuters to get them to give the answer she wants: ‘No, I wouldn’t pay for it’.

The clock is ticking down – almost twenty minutes in and so far we’ve learned: newspaper circulations are in decline.  Advertising revenue is in decline.  El Vino’s seems like a cosy spot.

With ten minutes to go JSP addresses the camera, saying newspapers are, ‘Embracing the web as a platform for reaching readers’.  I make a mental note to check if the credits close with © BBC MCMXCVI.  ‘For all its futuristic allure’, we’re told, ‘There’s a problem with online media’.  It doesn’t pay.  JSP is stunned that the Telegraph is pouring resources into its online operation: ‘Can a posh paper like this turn itself into a serious player in the online world?’ she asks.  The rich, you see, having hooves rather than fingers, making keyboards difficult to negotiate.

Finally, a talking head with some dedicated online chops.  Cameron Yuill is an ad exec who has helped the Guardian and the Telegraph, amongst others, create a system that allows location dependent advertising be shown on their sites.  The Guardian, it’s noted, has 7 million unique readers in the US every month.  By targeting advertising at an ever growing global audience, British newspapers may be able to secure at least some part of their future.  Huzzah, an insight!

Then: fin.  This show was never going to be an opus.  But couldn’t it have been just a little bit better?

(McFly released their last album via a free CD giveaway with the Mail on Sunday.  The stunt boosted circulation by 300,000.)