NewsBox: A Future for Newspapers

Ever since I read Ireland’s newspapers with a critical eye while working on the Paper Round Project, I’ve been thinking about the significance of what I found. Newspapers are mostly not delivering anything like the news I’d like to read. That’s true of Irish Newspapers, but also of other papers around the world. The only publication I’ve found that delivers me consistently engaging and informative writing is the New York Review of Books. This is the only publication I’m subscribed to.

However, I also think that Ireland desperately needs a good newspaper. Television can’t explain the news to its viewers. The medium is inherently unsuitable. Radio is an excellent medium, but there is a limit to the complexity and abstraction that can be conveyed though it. It’s only in print that difficult choices can be explored and explained, so that the reader (and the public in general) can make informed choices.

The problem is that on their current trajectory, Irish newspapers will be consumed by the tide of the internet within 10 years. This will give them a slightly longer life then newspapers in the US and the UK, but only because the Internet hasn’t bitten as deep here yet. It will.

I don’t want to see that happening. So I’ve been trying to come up with a solution to the newspaper problem. I’m not the only person in the world to try this, of course, but I haven’t heard anyone else proposing some of these suggestions.

I’d eagerly seek feedback from everyone and anyone reading this. At the end, I’ll list the problems and difficulties I already see with my proposal. Feel free to add your own. However, I will say that the overall advantages are so compelling that I think these, mostly technical, problems can be overcome.

So, who in their right mind would suggest launching a newspaper right now? After all, the last newspaper launched in Ireland, Dublin Daily, died within a few short weeks. Well, first and foremost, the answer is somebody who thought that they could make money out of it. So forgive me if I seem to harp on in my discussion on the methods of making money. I think that’s important if the idea is to have any legs.

What are you buying?
When I buy a newspaper, I get a physical item, black and white and/or colour pages printed on newspaper (newsprint). That has a value. I can carry it, fold it, read it anywhere and throw it away when I’m finished. No electronic reading machine currently in existence can match those benefits.

More conventionally, you’re buying the writing from the journalists and writers working for the paper. You’re also buying the editorial judgment of the editors and perhaps also you’re buying into a certain social self-image associated with your choice of paper.

I propose splitting these currently conjoined items apart and selling them piecemeal, allowing people to combine writers and subject in a way that suits them and their interests.

For example, currently for my €1.90, I get an Irish Times, over half of which I never look at. Sport, daily business coverage, TV listings, classifieds, the criminal trial reports. All of no interest to me whatsoever. Of what’s left, I’m not convinced that I’m getting exactly what I want or need, but at least I’m interested in it. I’d like to drop the things I’m not interested in and replace them with subjects that do interest me. I’d like very detailed radio listing and previews, for example. I’d like a few extra cartoon strips. I’d like more law reports and more informed coverage of the Civil Courts.

What if I could choose a modular paper? What if I could drop the items I didn’t want and add extra ones instead?

But if I’m doing that, why limit myself to what the Irish Times has to offer? Why not allow any writer to join the platform and let them get paid by how many people subscribe to their feed. The essays or articles they write would be exclusive to their subscribers and would then be archived for free access on a central website after 2 weeks for Google and AdSense to find.

Think of cable television. People subscribe to the basic package, and will pay different amounts for different premium services that appeal to them on top of that. Perhaps you’re a fan of Irish Basketball, but you can’t follow your league properly with the paltry attention given to your sport in the papers. Subscribe to an author who will give you all the basketball news you can bear. Perhaps we let the author set their own price- let them find what their market will bear.

If I am an expert in share trading and am willing to write a good tipster’s sheet, what would people be willing to pay for that? More than for basketball, I’d say. This is an established business model (the paid-for niche newsletter) in other countries.

The platform owner would take a share of each author’s subscription service to pay for the overheads of content delivery. I’ll discuss what those overheads are likely to entail below.

Cross my palm with silver

Now we have an open publishing platform that pays people to write. How do we take payment? As a general principle, the answer should be in every and any way that the buyer wants to pay. But from a business point of view, some methods are more attractive to the seller than others.

Handling cash is a complicated and labour intensive business. Instead, I explored the idea of charging by premium text message. We all have phones with us all the time, and they can all text. The downside to this is the very hefty commission taken by the companies providing those premium numbers. You’ll be paying half of your €2 to them, before anyone else gets paid. You’ll be paying up around 70% if your payment amount was as small as 20 cent or so. That’s not really bearable in a pay per issue model.

Time to look abroad- and away from our ideas of newspaper purchases- to the world of magazines. If you live in the US, or to a lesser extent in the UK, the price of purchasing a magazine from the rack is about comparable to here. The difference is that the price of subscribing to that magazine is dramatically lower. Here’s a few examples: The Nation’s cover price is $3.95. If you subscribe, the cost per issue is 75c. Vanity Fair costs $1.25 per issue on subscription. In the world of newspapers, subscription discounts can be even more valuable. The New York Post is 25 cents at the newsstand, but only 5 cents if you subscribe and have it delivered to you.

Publications can afford to offer these discounts for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the information on their readers gleaned from the subscription process makes it possible to build up a profile that can be then used to charge advertisers a premium. Secondly, the certainty of knowing that you will have a reader all year, and of getting some money up front, makes it ad space more valuable and eases cashflow.

In Ireland, newspapers haven’t traditionally tried to push subscriptions. Advertising is a lot less lucrative in our smaller market and cover price makes up a larger proportion of a paper’s income than is typical in the US. The dangers of cannibalising their income is too great. But if you don’t have any historical income, discounting subscriptions seems to make more sense.

So, for our paper I’d suggest that you offer payment by standing order, by recurring Text message- say once a month to keep the transaction costs low- and by payment through the web (be it by paypal, or plastic card) for longer term subscriptions. Let the buyer choose what method they find comfortable. The cheaper it is to manage these payments the deeper the discount to the subscriber. Following the usual practice, you’d offer free access for a period, say two weeks so people could sample your wares.

How would you like your newspaper served?
And the answer here has to be- how ever you like it. So, if you want all your chosen authors and content emailed to you every morning- you got it. If you want a site or attractive file that is readable on your mobile phone as you sit on the bus- you got it. If you’d like it dynamically laid out to look like a newspaper and sent to you as a pdf to print out- you got it. Of course, if you want to access it as a website- it goes without saying that you can have that too.

Build in social networking. Let people compile their own collections of content- to become their own newspaper editors. If I decide that you’ve got good taste, and you’re always finding gems, maybe I’ll just subscribe to your paper instead of taking the time to compile my own. If I do, you should get a cut of the price. Who knows, the age of the celebrity editor might yet dawn.

But here’s my big idea. You go a step further and you offer to give people their newspaper in the format they’re all familiar with. You offer to print their paper on demand. Give them a newspaper that has all their own choices in it, and nothing they don’t want. Let their friends send them articles they think they’d be interested in (as del.ici.us does now, in a rudimentary way) or to write articles that only their friends could subscribe to. Imagine subscribing to your daughter’s articles and reading her news, and seeing her photos, from her trip around the world in your paper in the morning. Let the reader choose to mix and match from any publication on the platform- Business news from one source, celebrity gossip from another, Dail Sketch from another. All the publications get paid, or the writers if they’re working freelance.

How would this print on demand system work? Well, imagine a slightly more elaborate version of the Fuji photo printing boxes you see in chemist shops. Our News Box will know who you are from the unique ID of the Bluetooth in your phone. So when you approach, if starts to print.

Now, the News Box knows who you are, and it knows where you are. It even knows what time it is. If you’re an advertiser, how much of a premium would you pay to reach that person? If I’m printing it from the Spar in Abbey St in Dublin at 8am, my paper is printed with an ad from Arnotts offering me 12% off my morning coffee. If I print it on O’Connell Street, a McDonald’s ad might try and offer the same thing. My friends could even buy adspace in my paper alone- wishing me a happy birthday or perhaps sending a circle of friends a party invite. And the platform gets paid every time, on a sliding scale depending on how valuable the audience is to that advertiser. Google have only got a fraction of the way towards this kind of sophistication with their AdSense system. That reads the page its on, and guesses your interests from its surroundings. This system knows where you are, what you read, who your friends are, what time it is and, crucially, who you are. Forget targeted advertising. This is advertising assassination.

Allow opt-in classified. If I’m in the market for a car, let me indicate that I’m interested in seeing classified ads from cars. For the advertiser, you know that you’re only reaching people who want to read your ad.


Why Ireland?

Why on earth would you go to the trouble and expense of building such an elaborate system to just sell papers to the people of Ireland? The answer is, you wouldn’t. But once you’ve got Ireland right, you can scale the same system up around the world.

Ireland is important as a test case because it is a stable, English-speaking state. It is open to media from abroad (very open, as any glance at the Sunday Newspaper piles will tell you) but at the same time it is a polity in its own right. You could pick a suburb of Manchester of approximately the same population size, but it wouldn’t have the same mix of all the kinds of reporting that a state can provide- the courts, the national government and a range of established national, as well as local, media. In addition it is one of the most voracious consumers of newspapers in the world and has a strong tradition of the written word.

Make the NewsBox system work in Ireland, perfect it and you’ll be able to make it work in London, then the UK, then the US.

Ah, but…
Now for the splashes of cold water. Problems with the plan. I don’t think any of them are insurmountable, but I don’t have the answers to them all.

Firstly, the News Box doesn’t exist yet. You need to make something that is of minimal, or no, work for the shopkeeper. So no jams. Also it needs to print a lot of material very quickly. Nobody wants to queue for their newspaper to be printed. They’ll just wander off. I think this is difficult, but not impossible.

Secondly, why would Spar give you valuable floor space for your News Box and its patrons? The answer has to be that you pay them, but I don’t know yet how much would be enough.

Thirdly, what does the newspaper look like? We already know it isn’t going to be broadsheet. Maybe its just a folded over set of A3 sheets, printed double sided. It will be a lot smaller than your current newspaper, at any rate. Though for time poor readers, knowing that they just have to read the things of interest to them might be a bonus. This is more an issue to be explored than a problem to be solved.

Fourthly, can you write a programme that dynamically lays out newsprint, headlines and photographs in an attractive manner on the fly? I don’t know the answer, but I have to say that if the reward was great enough the answer must be yes.

Fifthly, a newspaper without photographs will be unattractive. But how you incorporate the photographers in your payment system? Do the authors associate the pictures with their stories, and then pay part of a higher fee on to the photographers? I don’t know, but I do know that photographs are vital. Perhaps some kind of link up with Flickr might work- but again the question arises, who is choosing the photos?

Finally, how much would it cost, and would it pay?
Currently I don’t have an idea. But I bet you wish you could get the Daily NewsBox now, don’t you?

Over to you now. Ideally, everyone who reads this would leave a comment, or better still go back to their own site and write about how brilliant/ stupid an idea this is. I’d like this notion to get legs, so the more you buzz about it, the more likely we are to see if it is a dead duck or if it is a runner.

29 Comments

  • You’ve good ideas here and here’s another: develop a relationship with a newsagent who lets you take away a section of a daily paper for free or for a pittance. This practise works for me with two shops in County Tipperary. One of them lets me mix the Sunday magazines from one paper in place of the plastic bags that come inside another. All I had to do is ask.

  • Will says:

    Look at the chains… You could set up your box in a Centra / Super-Valu both Musgraves?) series of shops.

    I can’t say much about the printing process, but folded A5 might be easier (half A4 sheets). A4 is easier to source and stock.

    Costs would depend on the number of pages?

    Something which might be useful would be a physical object… a card with an ID number – prepaid like much of the phone cards, unless you want the phone operators in on this. Which would allow 1 person to have 2 magazines (or anonymous content for something which might be construed oddly). However it would prevent targeted adverts.

  • have you ever read ‘The Week’? it’s well worth looking at/researching. It’s a potted version of the week’s news in the UK, in a4 format.

  • […] defender of all those juicy ephemeral rights and freedoms we currently enjoy online; has had an idea. You see Simon loves newspapers. He writes about them, speaks about them, and researches them, with […]

  • Keith says:

    Intruiging idea.
    Re the photos, it’s important to remember that not every story gets a photo in a normal newspaper.

    You could also have a system that gives you a short or a long version of stories in a particular section. E.g. if I like to know what’s going on in the rest of the world, but don’t want to read long articles on it, I just get 50-100 word summaries of major stories (e.g. “Hurricane in Carribbean hits Jamaica; heads for Mexico as winds diminish; 30 dead so far; oil prices up $2 on worries about interference with Gulf production”)

  • danger says:

    Your idea for print on demand is pretty but also far too complex. The infrastructure required would mean far too much cost. Your previous suggestion is possible: a website, but one where you could very quickly check a few boxes to specify what sections you want, and then get a nicely formatted for A4 version of that days content as PDF to print yourself. Far more doable in the short term.

    A more elaborate version of the ‘print posts’ functionality from HP available at boingboing.net (see the little grey box on the top right of the posts section) is what I’m talking about.

  • Gareth stack says:

    Danger; Too much time investment, too little glamour, in the ‘Woo a PDF, now I can print my own paper’ model. Lets be honest, no one’s going to do that. In the ‘Paper Box’ model by contrast, the complexity is moved to the back end – and most of it is software complexity, building the marketplace etc. None of it’s intractable, the the potential market is so large (and indeed so much larger than the existing newspaper market) that it makes plenty of economic sense, provided you believe you can build an audience.

  • Simon, Love it. I love the physical element of a News Paper. I use it as my away-time from an LCD.

    Danger, Print on Demand is possible, I think. I’d be more concerned at the bandwidth/processing required to transfer and layout each paper with pictures fast enough not to form a queue at the machine.

    Are there similarities here to me printing out my RSS reader’s stories for the day? How about starting up with that experiement – something that takes a Google-Reader shared folder and does a nice PDF layout with it for you each morning to print.

  • Niall says:

    I think developments in e-paper – flexible, foldable, easy-to-carry devices that can access the internet – will make this unnecessary.

    For your idea to work it sounds like it would need a mass market to pay for the overheads. I think the amount of people who would go to the trouble of aggregating news from a variety of sources is a niche one.

  • Simon McGarr says:

    Thanks for your feedback.

    Bernie: I must try that next week.
    Will: The Spar/Centra Chains would be an obvious starting point, along with transport hubs (DART, LUAS, train stations, Busaras). All that floor space is going to cost money, though. I like the idea of a prepay card option.

    Antoin: I’ll buy it today.

    Keith: I haven’t hit on a solution to the photo problem yet. A short news digest sounds like an option a lot of people would pick.

    Danger: I’ve installed the print post gubbins on here now to try it out. Pity it doesn’t seem to include comments.

    As to starting small, I’m afraid that I can’t imagine anyone paying for a website mix of brand and freelance writers. And without a subscription income or a unique offering for advertisers there isn’t a reason to do it.

    That said, perhaps the HP technology can solve problem number four above. It doesn’t seem too dynamic in the version I’ve installed here (just reformats the post text to A4).

    Robin: Newspapers have a mass appeal that no screen can match. If you want to ensure that your society stays used to a daily read, you can’t rely on computers to fill in the gap. Both of us clearly relish the unique attractions of print on paper.

    I think that if Problem 4 is to be fixed, that using RSS feeds as the test bed would be a good idea. It might even be able to stand alone as a product to print the RSS content in an attractive format.

    Niall: If it isn’t mass market, it doesn’t make sense. I’d agree with you. As to whether people would compile their own content, I’d say that there would be differing levels of engagement. Some people would spend a lot of time switching and sampling content. Others would stick to a mix from known brands (Sport from Indo, Court Reports from Times, Technology from Examiner etc) and their own friends and families.

    As to e-paper. Well, it may come, but it will take a long time to replace paper as the mass-market choice and until, during and after that the NewsBox distribution system would be valuable in providing content that people might want to read.

  • simon says:

    I doubt the printing technology is there to achieve this.

    Also this would just further fox news the world. Why read Kevin Myres when you can just read stuff you will always agree with. People will just pick the stuff that spins the news the way they want it. It happens already this would make it worse. It would close out debate.

  • Pb says:

    The physical element would appeal to a lot of people – ideally I think the development would be with e-paper. The foldable flexible kind that is supposed to revolutionise the newspaper world…

    A big question would be what if specific RSS feeds don’t update that day– would it leave blank spaces on the page?

    Another idea would be giving readers the option to layout elements of their own issue – making personal navigation easier – like the profile pages on Facebook or iGoogle.

    There is the time it would take to print – how long would it take versus how long are people willing to wait?

  • Pb says:

    Two hours later – another idea…

    Instead of buying floor space from the stores (BWG for Spar, Mace and Londis and Musgraves for Centra and Sueprvalu) approach paper/magazine distributors like Easons and Newspread to use their network to get newsagents onboard… just a thought.

  • Daragh O Brien says:

    Niall’s point about e-paper devices is interesting. However the technology is still not quite at the mass market stage and is certainly nowhere near mass adoption no matter how cool and practical it is. ergo from the point of view of a viable business idea it isn’t really a runner yet but it may be in time.

    The unfortunate reality is that after 20+ years of the ‘paperless office’ we are still drowning in the stuff and are in some cases using more of it.

    Of the commenters here, how many use an ebook reader (not adobe pdf but something like mobipocket) to take electronic copies of books with them when travelling? I do – but as a commuter it is the easiest way to carry what would otherwise be large books without crippling myself. I supsect very few. Again this was a technology that was highly mooted as being the future of books but it has failed to really develop outside of early adopter niches.

    But it does mean that I can feel like Captain Picard when sitting in a coffee shop reading my latest ebook purchase on a handheld device. All I need is the red jumper and the swivel chair (oh yeah, and the baldness and the spaceship).

    On a personal note, I’d actually pay MORE for a newspaper that didn’t have any of the shite I’m not interested in – not in the sense of only wanting one flavour of commentary on issues but in the sense that I couldn’t be arsed about the sports section, would like a larger business section perhaps with some management education ‘thought for the day’ editorial bits, would like to have news from Dublin and Wexford. Oh I have a long shopping list…

    There are some technical challenges with this idea in terms of printing and content management but it is a good ‘un. epaper may be the eventual medium for it but that particular technology hasn’t hit the mainstream yet. Push to a pda or mobile or similar hand-held device might be a viable distribution channel. I know I’d buy that for a dollar.

  • Daragh O Brien says:

    One additional idea… how about a ‘random news category insert’ where a random category (or random contributor within a category) is pushed into the pre-planned mix. Exposes the reader to new content which they can then choose to keep on their profile or reject.

    This might help counter the content tunnelvision and the ‘fox news effect’. Imagine Fox News with Jon Stewart occasionally doing an anchor slot. Or the O’Reilly Factor discussing the Daily Show with Jon Stewart..

  • Niall says:

    One insurmountable problem with this is that is omits the work done by sub-editors and design staff in publishing things on paper. Contrary to popular belief, the main job of sub-editors is not to come up with quirky headlines but to make sure articles of different lenghts fit neatly on a page. There is not a story in a paper published today that is exactly as the writer wrote it for this reason. Whoever develops software that can pull content from different sources and edit it to fit on a printed page and still make sense will be deserving of high praise.

  • Cian says:

    “There is not a story in a paper published today that is exactly as the writer wrote it for this reason”…

    That’s true for most news, but columnists like Kevin Myres will often know their exact word count and stick to it. A lot will have agreements where their text is not changed before approval. (Both cases would normally exclude minor fixes)

  • Niall says:

    “columnists like Kevin Myres will often know their exact word count and stick to it.”

    LOL!

  • Cian says:

    What’s so funny?

  • Niall says:

    The prospect of writers rigidly sticking to an exact wordcount. It’s definitely not the norm.

    But even having a consistent wordcount doesn’t solve the problem of lenght of articles on a page. Two different 1,000-word articles will be of different lenght when laid out for a host of reasons – paragraph breaks, crossheads, quote boxes, the amount of characters used etc.

    Plus if the system is supposed to pull stories from a variety of online sources it would be impossible to foresee the wordcounts of each story.

  • fústar says:

    Very intriguing idea, Simon, though I’m afraid I can’t offer any practical advice due to my profound business illiteracy.

    I can write words (and even sentences) however, often in longish, fairly coherent streams. If I’m sent to the NewsBox salt mines, I’ll be ready.

  • Cian says:

    My use of the word ‘exact’ in the part ‘exact word count’, may have been a bit misleading, but Myres etc will have close enough compared to most elements of the Indo etc.

    That’s compared to news, and more so international copy which will often butchered to fit.

  • Garreth says:

    A thoughtful article. The German paper Die Zeit is both a newspaper and a magazine, with in-depth reviews of the arts, culture in general, economic and political questions of worldwide interest. Their review supplement is well illustrated with colour graphics and pictures. The French daily Le Monde, although not as well designed and with no colour pictures, is also more than a paper.

    “Sunday supplements” are glossy excuses for upper class consumer advertising, and any serious content is made uncomfortable by all the lifestyle junk about holidays, cosmetics, sexual exotics, booze and fast cars.

    The New York Review of Books that you mention is not a newspaper. I’ve read it over many years and consider it very serious indeed. Writers review a batch of books around a similar topic, say what they think of the books and the writing, and reflect on the issues raised discursively. We don’t get much of that sort of reviewing in Irish newspapers or magazines. Irish magazines are few and limited in scope.

    Please write again on the dumbing down trends in Irish newspapers.

  • […] there was a great reaction to my Newsbox idea(s) on a personalised newspaper complete with context and location specific […]

  • […] defender of all those juicy ephemeral rights and freedoms we currently enjoy online; has had an idea. You see Simon loves newspapers. He writes about them, speaks about them, and researches them, with […]

  • Before getting too carried away, you might want to look at which newspapers the Great Irish Reading Public is willing pay for. The majority don’t want to read about politics, international news, and (saints preserve us) interesting cases from the civil courts. I’ve watched civil court cases. Unless the plantiff/respondent is Bono or Pat Kenny, its an unprofitable activity.

    Most readers want soaps and sports. There’s a living to be made writing about those things, but I don’t think that market is going to care about opinion bloggers. Good luck developing this idea, but go back to basics for a while. Forget the technology, think about what sells a paper. The print-to-order model works for subscriptions, but how do you come up with the equivalent of the front page headline that attracts impulse purchases and grows readership?

  • DC Cahalane says:

    In good news, technology wise there’s two things going for the idea.

    1. Take a look at the Espresso Print on Demand system for paperback books. I know several places in Ireland that already use them. This tech is a few years old and its getting sexier all the time.

    2. News paper wise, on my travels I’ve already seen kiosk based printers that will print you a copy of pretty much every international newspaper – even the Irish Times if I remember correctly. Obviously it must just have access to a PDF file or some format library and it just prints on demand. Its a hotel lobby sorta thing.

    So theoretically the challenge becomes a content and software one, I’m sure the existing print technology is adaptable.

    Sci-fi Geek addition – those Babylon 5 Fans will remember this exact system with the ability to add sections of interest. As a nice touch the kiosk also recycled the old issues. 🙂

  • Simon McGarr says:

    I came back to this piece today, after four years.

    I realised this week that most of what I imagined I wanted- the ability to combine articles found by other people whose taste I trusted into a single publication- I have now.

    All day on Twitter, people I like hearing from post links to interesting things to read. Lots come from news sources, some from magazines, some from online sources like blogs. I mostly read twitter on my phone, so instead of squinting my way through the articles, I send them to Instapaper.

    Instapaper is a free service. It collected the text from those links, and reformats them into an attractive and easy to read text, shorn of all the faff and distraction of webpage bric-a-brac.

    It also offers to email a digest of all my unread articles every day or week, to my Kindle.

    I therefore have a daily, easy to read newsgather of articles in lovely e-ink- complete with serendipity- compiled by people I already trust to tell me interesting things.

    It is great.

  • […] defender of all those juicy ephemeral rights and freedoms we currently enjoy online; has had an idea. You see Simon loves newspapers. He writes about them, speaks about them, and researches them, with […]

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