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 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.
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.