12 november 2011

The fear of being original

IN A RECENT COLUMN at Medievarlden.se, the former editor-in-chief of Swedish local daily Västerbottens-Kuriren, Lasse Westerlund, suggests that newspapers should stop giving away their key product for free by publishing news on the web.
In numerous comments and tweets, mr Westerlund has been ridiculed as being regressive and, among other things, his opinions have been compared to those of an unimaginative steam engine driver in the early 20th century.
I totally agree that it would be more than stupid to try neglecting the fact that the internet is here to stay, and that the reading habits of people who (used to) buy newspapers are rapidly changing. However, if for a moment we put aside the question of technical platform (print, iPad, mobile, etc), there also seems to be quite a lot of stupidity – or, at least, lack of ability to think out of the box – in the way many newspapers just keep putting their highly valued goods at everyone’s disposal, including that of their competitors, without charging anything for the service.

ANOTHER EXAMPLE of thoughtlessly mimicking the behavior of others without considering the consequences is the way many newspapers allow advertising to totally dominate their visual environment, and thereby seriously hurt their own brand recognition (see an example here) as well as their esteem (for those who have got anything left to hurt).
So why is just about everyone running in the same direction? Few people would argue that giving away your product for free, or allowing some supermarket or car manifacturer to take over the visual gestalt of your news website, are intelligent strategies. More likely, these are behaviors deriving from a fear that if you do not make the same moves as all the rest, you might end up being the one who fails.

AS FOR GIVING AWAY NEWS FOR FREE, other strategies have in fact been tried. The whole discussion of paywalls is big and complicated and I do not imagine that I can make any intelligent or original contributions (just read that the website of the Financial Times now has more than 250,000 paying subscribers, but then again, business news is special) … but I would like to mention a different approach which appears to be successful.

IN DECEMBER 2010, overnight, NRC.nl (the website of Rotterdam-based dailies NRC Handelsblad and NRCnext) ceased to automatically publish all news from the two papers. After the initial couple of weeks filled with angry protests, users actually began to appreciate the new contents of the site and, according to NRC.nl editors, the number of visitors have now doubled compared to how things were before the change.
Instead of traditional news, NRC.nl now offers two parallel flows of content. One is named Het Beste van het Web (the Best of the Web) and works more or less like a traditional news aggregator, except that the stories, photos, videos and sound bites which it aggregates are not necessarily news – it can be any kind of content from everywhere on the web, as long as it is interesting.
The other flow contains comments, analysis, interviews, etc, related to stories which you can read if you choose to buy one of the papers.
For instance, if the NRC print (and tablet) publications are writing about the European debt crisis – which, no doubt, they are – an NRC.nl reporter might interview the financial expert at the NRC desk and make him or her explain how the whole international banking system works, or maybe list the strengths and weaknesses of the euro currency.
This works as a smart way to approach user segments different from the traditional newspaper audience and, at the same time, it is an effective method for NRC to promote their paid products.

NRC.nl DARED TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT – and something original. Apparently, they have succeeded. However, as the internet is still such a young media, or whatever you’d call it (whether the internet can be called a media or not seems like a never-ending discussion), there has to be hundreds of other ways to capitalize on its possibilities.
Therefore, it is not necessarily stupid to state that newspapers should try something else instead of just publishing their news and hoping that advertising will pay. Because that business model clearly isn’t working.

In case you are interested, you can read more about the NRC.nl project in a review which I wrote for the Danish Journalisten magazine earlier this year.

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