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Newspapers in the Digital age; the evolution continues

The future of journalism and newspapers has been a much debated topic over the past few years. The reality is that this is an evolving situation, due to news consumers (the public) still going through various stages of technology adoption.

One issue that is often raised  relates to the need for traditional Newspaper publishers in a digital world. The web is awash with so called ‘news’, but much of it has no journalistic quality and stems from unverified sources. It seems clear that news from trusted and verifiable sources, reported in a professional way, with integrity, very much has a role in the digital world. Whist the hardcore minority of web geeks might find the concept of citizen journalism exciting and progressive, it seems to me that the majority of web users prefer to consume quality journalism from trusted and respected sources.

But will they pay for it? This is of course the big question. My opinion is that through the medium of the web we have conditioned people to expect everything for nothing. Therefore charging for something as intangible as content will fly in the face of that conditioning. However, as we change the platform, so we have an opportunity to reset consumer expectation. The advent of smartphones, specifically the iPhone, and more latterly the iPad have provided the required stepping stone to a platform where the consumer is happy to pay for content. We are seeing this reset in consumer expectation right before our eyes. Therefore the answer is yes they consumers will pay for content, but we need to protect these new platforms from the hardcore web geeks that gave away the web for free. We should try to avoid a mobile bubble driven by the same commercial stupidity that contributed to the .com bubble.

Some people will of course pay for content delivered through a web browser, so long as they believe they are acquiring something of value. Such value can be expressed as scarcity, exclusivity or quality. Rupert Murdoch’s experiments in digital are being watched closely by many. In the UK, The Times and The Sunday Times went behind a pay wall in July, and apparently received about 100,000 payments in the first four months. Whilst the vocal cynics will point to reduced traffic figures, the more commercially savvy quickly recognised the value of a more engaged, focused and defined market. It is of course obvious that having millions of freeloaders all taking your content for nothing is nowhere near as valuable as a much smaller group that value your product and pay for it. They are not only valuable in terms of their ‘face value’ but they are also a much more valuable commodity to your potential advertisers.

But the game is rapidly moving away from web as the world starts to shift towards information served across the Internet to native local software applications rather than web browsers (Internet Explorer / Safari and others). This software (commonly referred to as Apps) run on Internet appliances, everything from your iPhone to your TV. But in the future your car, watch, house, and pretty much everything else, will become Internet appliances.  News Corporation have been quick to understand the perceptual shift created by these new platforms (in the short term the iPad), and have responded by  announcing The Daily.

The Daily, with a reputed $30 million launch budget and staff of 100 professionals is the next big Murdoch experiment and is due to be live in early 2011. There are several important aspects of The Daily, not least of which is that it isn’t free. The weekly cost will be 99 cents, $4.25/month, or $52.00/year. There will be no print or web edition, but it will work on multiple brands of tablet computers, not just the iPad. Another important aspect this latest digital publication is that it is thought to utilise a recurring subscription billing model on iTunes. Apple engineers apparently worked with News Corp to build this vital feature of this next-generation newspaper: the ability to PUSH it to subscribers. No more launching of apps and daily downloads; editions of The Daily will be downloaded upon release. It appears that Apple have seen the importance of what Murdoch is doing and some go as far as to say that Murdoch will be on the stage with Jobs at the next set of product announcements…

But Murdoch is not alone in having understood the commercial opportunity offered by iPads, Richard Branson is due to announce a new digital venture in the next few days (30th November 2010). Virgin is describing its magazine as a “revolutionary multimedia” publication, but then they would hardly call it anything less. Again Branson’s magazine would utilise Apple’s rumoured subscription technology in a similar way to The Daily.

Are Newspapers dead in the Digital age? Far from it. Do they need to figure out a whole new way to do business? Almost certainly not. With the growth of new ways to consume content served across the Internet, and the reduced dominance of the web, Newspapers have a very bright future ahead. Some people are destined to be freeloaders in society generally, but for the rest of us (the vast majority), we will continue to pay for quality items that are valuable to us and that very much includes news.

It will soon be business as usual for the Newspaper industry… thankfully.

Cheerio.

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