Another week, another ruckus over paywalls. That link will take you to Steve Buttry’s angle on the issue, but he links to the rest. Suffice to say I don’t think it’s a good idea for anyone to base an argument in favor or against anything, let alone declare victory, based on trends that started in just the past few years.
This ruckus erupted just ahead of news that Rupert Murdoch will pull the plug on his iPad-only, subscription-only news product, The Daily.
That by itself is evidence enough not to be too eager to declare victory. In this case, it was not the launch of The Daily that I refer to; many raised questions about the wisdom of launching a new product and immediately making it unavailable to the potential audience – that it would be one thing to take a well established, highly regarded newspaper entirely behind a hard paywall, and it’s another thing entirely to launch something new behind one.
What I recall also happening at the time, though, is swooning over the iPad’s implications for print publications moving to digital formats. I remember multiple company meetings where editors asked those responsible for digital initiatives when their newspaper would get its own iPad app. Everyone needed an app, so it seemed. An app! An app! My kingdom for an app.
While I loved the look of things I saw on the iPad, the idea of apps never struck me as a good one. They are not cheap or easy to build, and if you recall, your phone is not only old but totally obsolete in less than two years, so how long, I wondered, would the technology in an app be likely to last before it needed to be redesigned for the next generation (two years from now) of mobile products?
Part of The Daily’s problem, then, might be overeagerness to buy into the Apple iHype. But in a column about The Daily at GigaOm, Jordan Kurzweil lays out what he sees as the ways the The Daily went wrong and that he thinks still could be fixed. And I was struck while reading it that a great deal of what he said sounded like it applies to any newspaper trying to adjust to the digital world:
Be more than daily. Simply put, people now expect constant news updates. It doesn’t matter whether you think that’s good business; if you don’t provide it, the customers will go elsewhere.
Use technology to be bigger. I think the particulars of Kurzweil’s argument for The Daily here are different than I would put them for most newsrooms (most newsrooms having fairly limited technological capabilities), but a big part in either case is curation – or, as Jeff Jarvis says, do what you do best and link to the rest. In any community, it’s a rare news organization that is trying in any serious way to curate local blogs, competing news outlets, Twitter and whatever else is out there. One person doing that using common online tools could re-establish the newsroom as the hub of community conversation and news discovery.
Be available. I used to hear this worded differently: Go where your customers are. Nowadays, that is online, and rapidly it is becoming mobile. If you are 100 percent walled off from non-subscribers – meaning not only do you require payment for reading your stories, but you do not run any kind of free, web-friendly site to offer even a taste of your work to a casual passerby – it is not likely you will gain many new customers. Why are there ever stands in the grocery store offering free samples of a particular product? Same idea.
Fix the user experience. Most journalists I know give this practically no thought at all. Spend a day using nothing but your phone to keep up with the news, then think whether, if you had similar frustration when you went to a local restaurant, you would ever go back. Unfortunately, the technicalities of the user experience are largely outside your control, but you can think about the elements you are delivering to that experience, and if you are thinking about it, then when the opportunity comes to weigh in on the technology, you will have a base of knowledge from which to speak.
Be frugal. Most newsrooms I’m familiar with are way past frugal, so I have to reframe this. The problem The Daily had on this count was ignoring the frequent saying in business, “Fail fast, fail cheap.” But the mindset that led to this failure is well ingrained in newsrooms. Murdoch decided the future of the newspaper was in a highly formatted online product, so he threw a massive amount of money at it and tried to build Rome in a day. Didn’t work. I have seen over and over again that when an idea for something online is presented in a newspaper newsroom, the managers don’t want to do it unless they can make it pretty close to perfect; when moving to a new CMS, they will fuss over minute details and delay the launch; even redesigning the print product, they will agonize or argue over fonts. I would translate “be frugal” here as “be good enough,” using the phrase that in the mid-2000s the Newspaper Next project beat editors over the head with. I don’t think it took. (In 2010, Steve wrote a good update on the topic.)
I don’t know whether any of the above steps would have saved The Daily. But I have trouble finding a downside in the basic ideas.