Posts about paidcontent

Sin or sense?

Oh, no, the “original sin” meme of newspapers not charging for content is rising again. Sigh.

Dick Tofel, general manager of Pro Publica and former assistant publisher and assistant managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, is a very smart and reasonable man and he has written a smart and reasonable Kindle Single (enabling him to charge as a matter of metaphor) about “why newspapers gave away the future.” But his case is not exactly what it appears, for this is more of a history than a reverse-Reagan (that is, “Mr. Gorbachev, build this wall!”). Tofel writes (his emphasis):

[T]o say that a monumental mistake was made in 1995-1996 is not a prescription for business models in 2012. Consumers have been accustomed to a cornucopia of free content for nearly a generation now. And the newspaper industry is, in many places, a shadow of what it was in 1995…. This has been a meditation on one of those hinge points in history, not an exercise in nostalgia or a call to somehow repeal the past.

In the end, he is asking us to value journalism for the future. On that, we agree. But on history, not so much.

After setting out a well-written review of newspapers’ entry onto the net, Tofel argues (my emphasis) that “it must follow that the decision to give away newspaper content was a mistake, that an alternative future in which nearly all newspapers sought to charge for content on the web, just as they had charged for it in print and on the online proprietary services, would quite likely have produced a happier outcome.”

I could argue that newspapers were doomed to lose their monopolies and thus their pricing power over both content and advertising and that continuing to execute a business model based on controlling a scarcity would lose to those able to exploit the economics of abundance created by the net — read: Google. But I won’t argue that now because this has been argued so much before.

I could argue that all newspapers pricing in concert would have been antitrust and that it would have taken only one to ruin the game. But I needn’t argue that because that’s just what happened (I lived through the industry’s disastrous attempt at conspiratorial collusion, the New Century Network).

I will argue in a piece in the Guardian on Monday that it might also prove to be a mistake to see ourselves in the content business when others use content, including our content, as a tool to generate signals about people so they can extract much greater value out of that knowledge — read: Facebook. But I’ll save that argument for next week.

Instead what interests me about Tofel’s thesis is his cultural contention that newspapers fell victim to West Coast vs. East Coast thinking — a variant of the SOPA/PIPA worldview of Northern California vs. Southern California. Read: Silicon Valley vs. Hollywood; Silicon Valley vs. Sixth Avenue; technology vs. intellectual property; platform vs. content.

I hear this argument in other, more emotional and less reasonable terms often. I hear it when my ilk and I are accused of being internet utopians or technological trimphalists. I hear it even back to arguments over Gutenberg and technological determinism.

There was indeed a meeting of the Future of News conspirators only a week ago. But at any such gathering, I never hear anyone predicting or even longing for a utopia. I never hear them say that the outcome of this change is certain, only that change itself is certain. The real difference I hear is between those who welcome the change and fret over it, those who see opportunity and those who see destruction. Read: the disruptors vs. the disrupted.

“[T]he insecure management teams of the newspaper companies chose to follow the supremely confident leaders of technology in making some of the key strategic choices posed by the rise of the web,” Tofel writes (my emphasis). There he is blaming the technology cult for leading the newspaper institutions astray. Oh, he gives much blame to the institutions’ proprietors, especially for killing their own efforts at innovation and collaboration.

But he’s really blaming the newspapers for answering the siren call of the geeks. “Simply put, the notion that ‘information wants to be free’ had become Hip [his capitalization], and the idea that readers should pay for content online as they long had in print had become Square. Publishers, never the most self-confident bunch even in the most stable of times [ed: oh, how I disagree with that, having rarely witnessed such hubris as I witnessed among newspaper executives], desperately sought to be regarded as Hip as the new technologies roared across the landscape of their business, threatening to upend everything.”

In the end, Tofel reduces the economics of the net to the level of a fad. There’s where we fundamentally disagree. He tries to impose the industrial economics of scarcity and print and local monopolies upon the net’s economics of abundance and bits and openness. That’s what didn’t compute.

Oh, yes, we can debate the hypothetical of what would have happened if…. We can debate whether The New York Times pay meter works — but please first define “works” for me, as the company is still shrinking. Once I agree that I want the Times plan to work and tell you that I subscribe to the paper, then we can debate whether the walls will work or are working elsewhere. But none of that leads to a sustainable business strategy for news in a new reality. I believe we are in a new reality and that old models and old rules need not apply.

Tofel ends by imploring us: “In short, this time we need to do better” for journalism. He has done very well for journalism, helping to found Pro Publica, which is doing great work both in investigative reporting and in new models of collaborative reporting. Except it’s not economically sustainable. That is, it’s not a business. It has to beg for charity. Though that charity is well-deserved, there’s only so much foundation money to go around and that, I think we’d agree, is not how journalism will survive or prosper in the future.

This is why I started the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, to help students and entrepreneurs find new and sustainable models. I’ll have you know that just yesterday, I had a meeting with an entrepreneur about charging for content and I’m about to commission a study on best practices in paid and free newsletters to help. I’m not opposed to charging for content. I just don’t think it’s the solution that got away.

I also am not sure that concentrating on the past is where we are going to find those solutions. Oh, yes, there are lessons there (that’s why I’ve gone farther back and become obsessed with Gutenberg and his disruption). But the risk — the siren’s seduction of the recent past — is that we’ll still think we can maintain the old ways in a time of disruption. I think we have to be willing to throw out old assumptions so we see new opportunities.

And that’s what I think the newspaper industry failed to do because it still thinks its job is to make and sell content when I think its job should be to serve and enable their communities — read: Facebook and Google, which were able to find new value in content.

I do recommend reading Tofel’s essay (it’s only $1.99) as, again, it is well-written and researched and smart and reasonable. But then I also urge you to take the assumptions made by the industry and reflected in it and question them.

Daily economics

I have not seen News Corp’s Daily (I was invited to the preview last night but travel, exhaustion, health, weather, and thus prudence had me take the train home and I couldn’t get in today because of the ice). So I have nothing at all to say about the product. I am trying to get my head around the economics and I hope better mathematical and business minds than mine will analyze what it will take for the Daily to succeed.

Rupert Murdoch said the Daily went through $30 million in development costs that are already written off. He said operating costs will run $500,000 a week. So in the first year, the Daily will cost roughly $55 million. That’s a lot. For comparison, Portfolio went through somewhere between $40-100 million. I said we’d never see another publication launch of that scale. I was wrong. Also for comparison, News Corp’s abortive aggregator, Project Alesia, went through a reported $30 million.

Let’s say that circulation covers the costs of the Daily — since getting consumer revenue is the real point of the exercise — and that advertising is profit. Note well that I have *no* reason to believe that’s News Corp’s strategy. It simply makes it easier to illustrate the economics and the questions I hope other reporters tackle.

The Daily is selling for $1 a week or $40 a year.

So how many subs would they have to sell to break even on the $500k/week cost? (Note that’s break-even on an operating basis, not on the total investment.) It’s a bit more than 500k subs at $1 each for the reasons below.

Figure that Apple is taking something less than its normal 30% share for the privilege of having the Daily. Murdoch said that it will be ported to all major table platforms but then he said that last year, this year, and next year “belong to Apple.” (I have no idea whether he means that metaphorically or contractually.)

Figure also that there will be churn as there has been in iPad magazine sales. That means — as it always does with sub sales — that one must sell new subscriptions to replace cancellations to reach your magic number. Let’s say the Daily loses–and I’m pulling this number out of a hat– 10% a month, which it needs to replace. So if you’re selling 100k this month, you need to sell 110k next month to get to 200k and 120k the following month to get to 300 and so on.

I’m not qualified to run these numbers; I wish someone with circ experience would. But to pick another number out of the hat, let’s say that the Daily needs 750k net subs to hit cash-flow break-even because around 25% of circ revenue goes to Apple and half the subs are sold at the 20% discount. With churn, they’d need to sell a total of up to 1 million gross to reach that number while accounting for a subscriber acquisition (marketing) cost of, say, $10 (which is light but given Apple’s promotion, probably not unreasonable).

I picked 750k because it’s somewhere in the ballpark — Murdoch said he eventually plans to sell “millions” — and also because it leads to an easily rounded number for marketshare: The Daily would capture about 10% of the installed base of iPad owners today (though that’s a worldwide number, so the U.S. figure would be higher). That’s pretty high.

For comparison, Wired sells about 22k issues a month on the iPad, down from a debut of 31k, Glamour sold 2,775 in November, losing 20% a month from the prior two months (even as iPad sales soared)–note the higher churn number than I used above. So the Daily would need to sell roughly 34 times the sales of Wired. But it is daily and not monthly.

Now switch to advertising. The market will be small for sometime. I’m told these days that major brand advertisers won’t pay attention to a site until it gets 3 million audience. Then again, the value of tablet advertising is supposed to be high and advertisers like the experience. I also wonder whether the ads will also go through Apple and it will again take a share of a quarter to a third. There are so many variables in advertising–unique users per day; time spend and pages and ads views; avails per page; measurement of ROI (is there click-through?)–that it’s nigh until impossible for me to guess at the revenue. But I throw this out, again, in hopes that someone will tackle it.

Once more: I have NO figures other than the two Murdoch gave. I have ONLY questions. I hope the Daily is profitable; I hope any new news venture is profitable. I’d simply like to have a better idea of what it will take to get there. Anyone want to help? Please DO tell me where I and my assumptions are full of crap and please DO add experience and data. I just want to understand the dynamics of the business.

: Folks on Twitter are saying that I say the economics of the Daily don’t add up. I am not saying that. I simply want to see the addition.

Content I will pay for: farts

“The internet needs you,” I said to Howard Stern when I called into the show this morning as he was ranting about his contract negotiations with Sirius XM and the possibility that he could take his show and more to the net.

Do it, Howard.

“You made satellite radio,” I told him. “You will make the internet.” For Stern is the one media entity who can absolutely, positively get people to pay online — even me, the alleged opponent of all things paid. Today I pay $12 a month for Stern — more, actually, with my internet account and my wife’s and son’s cars. Stern is talking about charging $5 a month and for that we’d get his radio show plus his TV shows plus much more, even music — and no advertising (“why should I hire a sales force?” he asked).

Sold.

Why the hell would I pay for Howard Stern and not pay for news? Because Howard is unique. News isn’t. There’s no end of potential competition for any news provider and its unique value expires in seconds. Not so Howard. Arianna Huffington was wrong when she says that people will pay for business news and porn. There’s no need to pay for porn because there’s no scarcity of people who will strip and shtupp in front of a webcam. But there’s only one Howard.

I wrote about Howard’s potential internet empire here. Fellow Howard fan Doc Searls wrote about the potential here. Way back in 2005, I wrote an open letter to Sirius’ Mel Karmazin urging him to embrace the internet and see satellite as just as transitional delivery mechanism for his valuable content (ignore the fucking spam links on the post). He didn’t listen. Apparently, he’s not listening to Howard, either.

Fine. Even though I’m a Sirius shareholder and even though his departure would lead to a plummet in the stock price (from 2¢ to 1¢), I want him to leave because he will turn the internet into a credible, sustainable, mass entertainment medium. The delivery’s tricky but that will be fixed quickly as we carry connected devices all the time, everywhere: our phones, computers, TVs, cars, tablets, and devices we can’t imagine will all be connected (if the phone companies don’t fuck it up). The critical last six inches for Stern are not his penis but the means by which his show gets from my phone to my car speakers. But it’ll be cheaper to install a bluetooth transmitter than a Sirius radio. If we millions of Stern fans went to the trouble of subscribing to and installing Sirius, we’ll do it with something even easier that gives us the entire internet all the time.

For Stern, the economics have to be extremely tempting. He should not work for a company. (Howard: Don’t get sucked into signing on with another employer!) He should be the company. He can charge us less than half what we pay now. He can build the infrastructure for next to nothing (as he said today, he can build a studio — big deal). All he needs is a billing mechanism (Paypal?) and a bandwidth provider (Akamai?). He won’t need to market; he already is viral. And he gets to keep the profits. Sweet.

For us, we get to listen to Stern whenever and wherever we want. (Howard: Please let us listen to repeats on our own schedule, on demand!) We pay less and don’t suffer through ads for itchy-ball cures.

For the internet, we get to prove to unique entertainers everywhere that they can cut out the middlemen — networks, studios, all that — and create valuable relationships directly with their fans, getting much richer in the process. And that, in turn, forces entertainers, studios, networks, and cable companies to sell us entertainment a la carte, so I can stop paying for the damned 95% of my channels I never watch.

What’s not to love?

Do it, Howard. Leave old technology. Build the next medium, our medium. To hell with all the old media companies that have screwed you and us all these years. This is real freedom.

The money graph

A new Pew study on the economics of news does not give comfort to news sites planning pay schemes. It also does not give me comfort that we’re wasting precious time futzing over walls when we should be paying attention to the big problems we have — one of which this Pew study points out: dreadful engagement and loyalty — and should be looking at other ways to give and gain value in our relationships with the public. The Pew data:

Over all, the evidence suggests the outlook is difficult both for paywalls and for online display advertising. While most people have not been asked to pay for content, even among the most avid news consumers online, only about one in five at this point say they would be willing to pay, and this does not include less voracious news consumers. At the same time, the vast majority of those online, 8 out of 10, say they basically ignore online ads.

In short, a good deal must change, the data suggests, before the digital age will begin to sustain itself.

About 71% of internet users, or 53% of all American adults, get news online today, a number that has held relatively steady in recent years.

Most of these online news consumers graze across multiple sites without having a primary one that they rely on. Only 35% of online news consumers have a favorite site.

To put it another way, 65% of online news consumers do not have a site that is so important to them that it stands out in their minds above all other sites they visit.

The users who do have a favorite site are pretty faithful. Some 65% of them check in with that favorite site at least once a day.

Yet even among these most loyal news consumers, only a minority (19%) said they would be willing to pay for news online, including those who already do so and those who would be willing to if asked.

Instead, a large majority – 82% – of those with a favorite site said they would find somewhere else to get the news.

Because so few online news consumers even have a favorite site this translates to only 7% of all people who get news online having a favorite online news source that they say they would pay for.

This is a sign of just how much initial difficulty the movement toward pay walls could have.

In sum, there appears to be only a very small cohort of voracious news consumers who have to have their news from a particular site, even if they have to pay for it. The vast majority of online news consumers, though, seem willing to browse for news from many sites, do not have a favorite online news source, and even if they do, are not willing to pay for that site’s content.

This is not to say that resistance might breakdown over time. . . .

All these findings speak to the natural disadvantage of news content: Most news is covered by more than one organization and people do not place enough value on the difference between the various reports. In other words, if a user had to pay for a New York Times article on Haiti, evidence suggests that he or she would just look for another source that could provide the basic information. The nuances of depth or breadth in the pay story may not be valued enough to induce payment over a free alternative.

Thus, if the news industry is going to make headway with pay-walls, they are going to have to break through what for now appears to be continuing reluctance, even among its most avid consumers.

Paid Content on paid content

Paid Content is holding a conference on paid content. I’m there. Sigh. No surprise that I think this is too much focus on one model and meme.

At the start, James McQuivey of Forrester says: “People don’t pay for content and they never have… They have always paid for access to content. In the past, access happened to be gated by analog constraints.” We correlated the form – the gate – with the content. He argues that we are paying more for access but didn’t pay for content. “Media have always been a subsidized business.” He argues that subsidy is shifting from advertising to “a device and access service subsidy.” He says that he who controls access commands the highest share of revenue. He emphasizes that content rights holders win only if they hold a monopoly on that content; if competitors can do likewise (read: news) it doesn’t work. He says that device makers are a new player in getting access revenue. He also says that overall, revenue will go down because advertisers’ money will be split among many media (read: the end of scarcity). He says that competition among content creators will be fierce.

Next up is a panel on big-media joint venture. In Twitter, someone asked what a JV is. I said it’s a bunch of cats tied by the tail. As this is in the NYTimes building, I’m reminded of the newspapers’ disastrous JV, the New Century Network. I’m less interested in big-media JVs than in small-media JVs (aka networks, a la Glam).

The danger of the wall

The European, a German online news service, asked me to write a commentary for a debate on paid content. Here it is in German. And here’s the English text:

I have nothing against charging for content, if you can. After all, I’m selling a book. But I believe building pay walls around online news is a bad business decision.

The discussion about charging for content rises from a sense of entitlement—“we deserve to be paid,” which is an emotional argument—rather than from rational economics.

Charging is an attempt to replicate an old business model in a profoundly changed media economy that is no longer built on scarcity—on publishers’ control—now that everyone can publish. The new link economy rewards openness and collaboration.

Charging is also a distraction from the real goal: profitability and sustainability. We must rethink the entire ledger of the business of news, starting with costs, which must and can be reduced through collaboration, working in networks, and through the efficiency that comes with the specialization the internet demands.

More important, charging brings many costs:

• It creates the expense of marketing (when, online, your audience will market you for free, if you deserve it).

• It reduces audience.

• It reduces advertising revenue.

• It reduces links and clicks, which reduces Googlejuice, which reduces discovery, which limits growth.

But more than any of this, pay walls curtail a news organization’s relationship with its public, with its customers. On the internet, it’s in those relationships where value lies.

The New York Times plans to charge its best customers—its most frequent readers—while enabling what Rupert Murdoch calls the worst customers—those who stop by once from a search engine or an aggregator—to get what they want for free. That might make sense if you are selling a scarce resource: those who drink the most wine pay the most. But online, content and news are not scarce. They are the magnets that draw readers to you so you can build a valuable relationship.

Online also brings new opportunities to find value there. Hubert Burda said at DLD that Focus Online is profitable not because of advertising but because of ecommerce. The Telegraph in London brought in a quarter of its profit a year ago from direct sales of everything from clothes hangers to wine. So media companies are becoming in part, retailers. Does it make sense to put a toll booth at the door to your store to keep people out?

Once you have a lasting relationship, there are more ways to serve customers and make money. Some newspapers are holding events. Some are charging for education. Some are even selling real estate. But to do this, you need to invite, not drive away more readers.

There is one more cost to building a wall, a cost to journalism. Alan Rusbridger, the innovative editor of the Guardian in London, just delivered a monumental speech arguing that charging “removes you from the way people the world over now connect with each other. You cannot control distribution or create scarcity without becoming isolated from this new networked world.”

Rusbridger also warns that there are competitors lying in wait to step in when news organizations build walls. “Let’s not leave the field.” Rusbridger said, “so that the digital un-bundlers can come in, dismantle and loot what we have built up, including our audiences and readers.”

Charging could be dangerous business indeed.

Rusbridger v. walls

Just as The New York Times announces its pay wall, Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger gives an important speech on the topic — indeed, on the very nature of journalism — arguing against pay walls.

Charging, Rusbridger says, “removes you from the way people the world over now connect with each other. You cannot control distribution or create scarcity without becoming isolated from this new networked world.”

In an industry in which we get used to every trend line pointing to the floor, the growth of newspapers’ digital audience should be a beacon of hope. During the last three months of 2009 the Guardian was being read by 40 per cent more people than during the same period in 2008. That’s right, a mainstream media company – you know, the ones that should admit the game’s up because they are so irrelevant and don’t know what they are doing in this new media landscape – has grown its audience by 40 per cent in a year. More Americans are now reading the Guardian than read the Los Angeles Times. This readership has found us, rather than the other way round. Our total marketing spend in America in the past 10 years has been $34,000. . . .

This is the opposite of newspaper decline-ism, the doctrine which compels us to keep telling the world the editorial proposition and tradition we represent are in desperate trouble. When I think of the Guardian’s journey and its path of growth and reach and influence my instincts at the moment – at this stage of the revolution – are to celebrate this trend and seek to accelerate it rather than cut it off. The more we can spread the Guardian, embed it in the way the world talks to each other, the better.

Rusbridger warns The NY Times that if it shrinks behind its wall, The Guardian could become the biggest newspaper brand online. He imagines start-ups that “begin each day with a prayer session for all national newspapers to follow Rupert Murdoch behind a pay wall. That’s their business model.” His warning continues: “Let’s not leave the field so that the digital un-bundlers can come in, dismantle and loot what we have built up, including our audiences and readers.

Rusbridger argues, as do I, that this is about more than a revenue line:

There is an irreversible trend in society today which rather wonderfully continues what we as an industry started – here, in newspapers, in the UK . It’s not a “digital trend” – that’s just shorthand. It’s a trend about how people are expressing themselves, about how societies will choose to organise themselves, about a new democracy of ideas and information, about changing notions of authority, about the releasing of individual creativity, about an ability to hear previously unheard voices; about respecting, including and harnessing the views of others. About resisting the people who want to close down free speech.

As {legendary Gaurdian editor C.P.] Scott said 90 years ago : “What a chance for the newspaper!” If we turn our back on all this and at the same time conclude that there is nothing to learn from it because what ‘they’ do is different – ‘we are journalists, they aren’t: we do journalism; they don’t’ – then, never mind business models, we will be sleep walking into oblivion.

The cockeyed economics of metering reading

The irony of the report that The New York Times is going to start metering readers and charging those who come back more often is this: They would would end up charging — and, they should fear, sending away — the readers who are worth the most while serving free those who are worth least.

That’s according to the math of News Corp., which argues that readers who come via links from search and aggregators and bloggers and such are worthless because they’re not local and they don’t stay; they’re one-click-wonders. The readers who come back again and again, the ones you know more about and can rely on and target better and build relationships with, goes this logic, are worth more. And News Corp. is also threatening to charge them.

So why charge your best customers? Why single them out? Why risk driving them away?

The logic eludes me. So do the economics.

I know, the argument is that these readers use the content more so they should be charged more. But that is based on the assumption that content is a consumable, a scarcity that drains the more it is read. Of course, it isn’t. Content is, instead, a magnet that can create relationships of value; whether that happens is up to the creator of the content and the quality of service and relevance is gives. That, dare I repeat it, is the basis of the link economy.

But note the verb that started off the paragraph above: should. Readers who read more should pay more. This is the product of journalism’s sense of entitlement.

So why would The Times charge? There are a few possible reasons:

* It has failed at advertising, as I said of News Corp. recently.

* Its costs are too high — and rather than cutting them into a rational business, it desperately seeks some other revenue.

* It is falling prey to PR, to the pressure of outsiders who keep nattering on about charging.

* It has forgotten its own lessons with TimesSelect sees amnesia as a strategy.

I think the risks are great and grave. The Times could have fought to become the preeminent news brand on earth, fighting it out with the BBC for that title. Instead, I fear, it will duck into its shell as the Washington Post has.

I already pay for The Times at home. I hope they would not charge me again. If they do, I will cancel the paper. If they charge me for using the paper more, I will use it less.** I will find other very good substitutes for much of what I get from it — indeed, this will push me to discover and curate new sources. I will read what matters most to me from The Times and discover just how much that is — a calculation the paper should not want to force me to make, not when there is so much new and good competition out there.

Clay Shirky has ridiculed micropayments, saying that we don’t like being nickel-and-dimed. I’ll ridicule metering, reminding those who contemplate it to remember what we think of meter maids. We curse them.

There is only one thing that can happen should The TImes put a meter on us. It will shrink.

** I should expand on this point. I would not use The Times less because I like it less, because I want to punish it. I love The Times. I read it every day. What I’m saying is that by metering, The Times will have me make a new economic decision every time I want to read a story: Is this unique content I will get only here (there is a good deal of that) or is this commodity information I can get elsewhere (BBC, Reuters, Washington Post, Politico, TechCrunch…). The Times then restricts our relationship and it is in that relationship that it has to find value.