Like most people, I get my news from multiple sources. I enjoy reading op-ed columns by a variety of journalists across a variety of papers in a range of countries. But I have a problem: I can only read a small number of free New York Times articles before being prompted to subscribe. In the Times of London it’s even worse. I get no free reads at all; it’s subscribe or get lost. A similar scenario presents itself at the Financial Times, The Economist and so on.
The problem here isn’t that I have to pay for what I read—I am only too happy to pay for content. The problem is that I am also being asked to pay for lots of content I have zero interest in reading. The subscription model these brands are pushing belongs to a different age, when people got their news from a single source. Why should I be tied down to a long-term relationship when all I want is a fleeting moment of romance? In short, I want an open relationship with the New York Times. And the Financial Times. And all the rest.
To view what is happening between consumers and this part of 'old media' is like watching a slow-motion repeat of what happened to Kodak, Polaroid and Blockbuster, among others. Blockbuster thought it was a VHS/DVD rental business, but consumers disagreed. They went to Blockbuster for movies, but the format was incidental to them, like two salesmen agreeing to conduct business in the same currency for the sake of ease. When another format proved more appealing, they migrated to Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Prime because those brands understood the appeal of new formats.
Today, the legacy press (the part of the press which predates the Internet) still views its core product as physical newspapers and magazines. They treat online news as mere line extensions of this ‘core product’, packaging and promoting it in near identical ways. And this is why the industry is struggling.
Online consumers don’t want ‘newspapers’, that’s why they are online in the first place; they just want the ‘news’ bit, or ‘content’. But just as Blockbuster was wedded to a format that had served it well for so long, so the legacy press is wedded to an outdated format that lacks relevance to how most consumers today like to consume news.
It’s easy to understand why. Until the Internet came along, consumers seemed perfectly content with traditional newspaper formats. Now it’s clear this was a marriage of convenience; consumers bought newspapers because they craved news, not the paper it came on. The newspaper was merely the best format available to both consumer and producer given what was possible from a production and distribution point of view.
Digitalisation changed this by bringing the production costs of written words down to near zero. The Internet changed it again by then bringing the distribution costs of those written words down to near zero. The result was a vertiginous drop in entry costs for any challenger brand and a mushrooming of competition.
Much like Netflix versus Blockbuster, these new entrants have been only too happy to give consumers what they want: content without too many (or sometimes any) strings attached.
A newspaper that understood what Blockbuster didn’t would let me pay a small amount for individual articles. It would develop ‘one click’ technology a la Amazon to make purchasing an article as easy as possible. It would allow advance payment for articles by favourite journalists or those I would choose to ‘follow’—which, when you think about it is just a more tailored from of subscription. (Of course, full subscriptions would still have their place, especially for niche brands, journals and trade publications.)
It is probably true that splicing their ‘package’ up this way and selling the chunks individually would result in certain parts of newspapers being unviable. So be it: If consumers don’t want to pay for it, why are newspapers publishing it?
In short, such an approach would allow news brands’ to focus on the most compelling and attractive parts of their product—which ultimately is where survival for them lies.
Please NY Times, can’t we just keep it casual?
Glen Kristensen is associate director at Flamingo London