Almost all Irish newspapers posted largely predictable slides in their circulation figures yesterday, with sales of the Irish Times falling below the psychologically important 100,000 mark.
Interestingly, however, the Times also posted audited figures for some of its digital editions – 2,023 for its online e-paper and 1,687 for subs on what they call “other platforms, such as Kindle” – I assume that’s e-readers as its iPhone and Android apps are currently free.
Some beermat maths: The Kindle edition costs £14.99 (€17.65) a month, the epaper between €13.33 and about €50 a month depending on how you pay. So that comes to somewhere between about €56,000 and €133,000 a month. That leaves the Times some way to go to make up for the missing 6,393 sales (worth about £325,000 a month on cover price alone).
Although Liam Kavanagh, the MD, said he was happy with the print + apps + epaper total, by far the most interesting thing he said yesterday was again raising the prospect of a paywall, ”particularly in the context of business coverage and niche content”, at irishtimes.com. That may explain the heavy trailing for their revamped daily business supplement.
I do hope the Irish Times isn’t basing its plans on the success of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal’s paywalls. I’ve written here before that I don’t think a general interest newspaper can compete with such specialist publications. Irish newspaper executives are almost certainly also looking at the relative success of the New York Times’s paywall (although plummeting advertising revenues take the gloss off that, too).
In the US, Gannett announced yesterday that it was going to put up a metered-use paywall at 80 titles. The company, which owns 200 titles in the UK, claims the US paywalls could increase revenues by $100 million. I’ll believe it when I see it. In London yesterday, News International announced a new “digital pack”, essentially doubling the online price of the Times of London and the Sunday Times. The Times claims 119,255 digital subscribers, but doesn’t break them down between web-only and print subscribers and doesn’t indicate what kind of reader turnover it suffers.
In short, the titles that use or plan to use paywalls are either so specialised, so over-optimistic or so secretive, it is very difficult to extract any meaningful indication of whether such a strategy would work in a market as small as Ireland’s. My suspicion is that it would not.
Publishers need to be made fully aware that paywalls are no panacea – at the Paywall Strategies conference in London yesterday, the Economist’s Audra Martin said it had doubled the content it produced over the past two years.
“Just putting print online was never going to be enough,” she said. “We had to up the amount and frequency we were publishing.”
Although the potential rewards are great – the Economist’s operating profits rose 6 per cent in the first half of 2011 - how many publishers would commit to such a large increase in journalistic output while maintaining its quality?
A fact. It seems like the simplest, most unshakeable thing in the world. But so few people seem to understand what it means. A fact is something we know to have taken place.
Something that somebody says happened is an allegation. It stays an allegation until some evidence or testimony is produced that confirms it. That is how the law works. That is a fact.
In the flurry of internet postings about Kate Fitzgerald’s sad last days, facts are sadly lacking. That is largely because in Kate’s last article for the Irish Times, facts were lacking. She wrote it under a pseudonym, one assumes, for a reason. She didn’t want to embarrass her employer or her friends, perhaps. She certainly didn’t name any of them. However, she made at least one serious allegation, that her employers acted “illegally”.
As long as her employer remained unknown, that allegation was not an issue. Her employer was The Communications Clinic, as every dog in the street now knows.
The minute that information became known, Kate’s allegation became legally actionable. By the time it was published, she was dead. Without Kate to testify that her allegation was true, the Irish Times could not put it to The Communications Clinic and they could not hope to eventually face their accuser. In Ireland, the dead have no legal reputation to protect. Until a court finds otherwise, The Communications Clinic is entitled to its good name. Like it or not, that is the law. That is a fact.
The anger at this reality is palpable, but it is not immediately clear from where it all comes. Some of it is intemperate and misguided — commentators on broadsheet.ie and the Irish Times Facebook page have confused Kate’s story with the case of Karagh Fox, a woman who claimed she was bullied by the Communications Clinic. The case settled out of court.
Others accuse Peter Murtagh of “outing” Kate as the anonymous author, when it was her parents who contacted him. Many demand that Kevin O’Sullivan, the editor of the Irish Times, reinstate allegations for which he can provide no evidence. Craziest of all, others still suggest that Terry Prone runs some sort of Illuminati-like PR agency that controls, unchallenged, the Irish political and media landscape. The mob suggests that the Times, having given into unproven pressure from the supposedly unaccountable Prone, can redeem itself by giving in to pressure from utterly unaccountable Facebook members.
We are into the territory of people believing in conspiracy over cock-up and, frankly, it’s not credible. Nor, unfortunately, is it easily combatible. The web has, yet again, made somewhat an ass of the law.
Be in no doubt, the Irish Times has botched the handling of this from start to finish. Reading between the lines of Hugh Linehan’s post today suggests they are well aware of it. But it is possible to do the right thing, legally, ethically and journalistically and still be painted as the bad guy in the minds of the public.
“Explaining is losing” is bullshit. Some reasonable commentators are finally emerging and as Hugh pointed out there are most certainly lessons to be learned. A refresher course in when to use pseudonymous sources and a seminar in jigsaw identification, for starters. But no amount of mob rule, no matter how emotive the issue, should sway the editor to reinstate an article he is not convinced is factual.
Anyone who wants to continue the vitriolic campaign against the Times, I suggest they go read this post from Colette Browne. It may remind you of the more important message at the centre of all this.
Purely in the interests of disclosure, I worked for the Irish Times a decade or so ago, and with Hugh Linehan specifically. He’d be the first to tell you he had no influence on my opinions
How do you monetise archived newspaper stories? One of the more frequent arguments used against an “iTunes for news” approach to selling individual newspaper articles is that they do not have the shelf life of a song. You listen to songs many times – you bin a newspaper the next day.
Depressingly often, those most guilty of a “tomorrow’s fishwrap” mentality toward newspapers are those most involved with their creation. The focus, understandably, is on the value to be added to tomorrow’s edition and rarely on extracting any from work that has been done, paid for and archived.
That’s why I found this story about the New Yorker charging for collections of old articles cheering. They started with baseball pieces selected from 90 years of the periodical and moved on to golf and other subject areas. The collections were for the iPad, but they could just as easily be for any other tablet, an e-book reader or even printed for an old-fashioned dead tree edition.
This isn’t a new idea – on-demand printers, such as Amazon’s CreateSpace will print your book. Wikipedia will print books of any entries you choose. Newspaper Club will print you a one-off, small newsprint run from any files you send them. National newspapers regularly give away vouchers for print-your-own photo books.
The consumer side of this market is well stocked, but there are few newspapers or magazines chasing this stream of revenue.
The trouble is, a lot of the functions needed to put this together take place behind the scenes of a newspaper’s archive and the value only starts acruing from when you get organised. In other words, to be reaping the value from a properly organised, categorised database of its content NOW, a newspaper website would have had to start 10-15 years ago. Some did, but some still don’t tag content properly.
But better late than never – Google is digitising books that are out of print but still in copyright, with a view to selling them. The technology cannot be that different when digitising the more saleable elements of a newspaper’s cuttings archive. It means scanning a lot of yellowing paper, or more likely microfiche, but many newspapers have begun the process already. Optical character recognition (OCR) software is pretty reliable these days, and should a newspaper make a wiki of all their past information on a subject, crowdsourced corrections could conceivably make any scanning problems minimal.
If a newspaper’s database is sufficiently well organised, there are almost endless possibilities with this:
- Books of obituaries. These could be organised by job (politicians, World War II air aces, drummers) by nationality (50 famous Belgians), by home town, or by any combination. Set up a website, let readers build their own collections.
- Coffee table books of archive images – when I worked for the Irish Examiner, the picture processing team would scan old glass plate images into the digital during down time. The images included JFK’s visit to Cork city. People pay for reprints.
- Annuals – a year’s gardening columns, organised by season or month; a collection of travel columns organised by country.
- Sports – I have little interest, but there are those who would pay for a book of match reports and images of their local hurling or football club’s year.
There are also great sponsorship possibilities – Robinson’s pay for an e-book of Wimbledon greats, Odeon a collection of the year’s movie reviews, or PC World a pre-Christmas collection of tech reviews.
CJR’s Felix Salmon sums it up: “the small sponsored collections are for me the most exciting, from a business-model perspective. It’s hard to sell old content — but it’s much easier to repackage it and get a sponsor to pay you to do so.”
If you involve the reader in the creation and correction of these documents, you minimise the costs of production. If you use print-on demand, or e-books, you minimise production costs. If you organise your database properly, you minimise (but, thankfully, don’t eliminate) the need for editorial input.
As Salmon points out, ”the more different models and revenue streams, the better”. Better yet if you’ve already borne most of the costs.
A few additional thoughts on Declan Lynch’s cliched and curmudgeonly paean to the paywall.
Hugh Linehan has a much more polite take than mine in which he pokes another hole in Declan’s argument:
“the biggest problem facing newspapers isn’t declining circulation; it’s declining ad revenues”
His post, “Do journalists understand what’s happening to newspapers?”, also makes me suspect that blogs obey the same rule as print – if a headline asks a question, the answer is no.
For any journalists unsure of how much to charge for news, Julie Starr’s thought experiment is well worth a couple of minutes of your time.
Finally, there’s this:
In the Sunday Independent, Declan Lynch trots out so many cliches about “the sick relationship between newspapers and the internet” it’s hard to believe he’s not making a cack-handed attempt at irony. And when I say trots, I do mean a narrow stream of squint-eyed shite.
For Declan, identifying the enemies takes no research and less thought – Google, “the great god”, the thief as decreed by Rupert Murdoch, and Wikipedia, that anonymous conglomerate of amateur research that is shamed by the quality of “the lowliest provincial paper”. Twitter? Why, without links to stories by paid-up, bona fide journalists, it would be “a bunch of people talking about what they had for breakfast”. And bloggers? Well, they are just “self-regarding bores without the writing talent or the commitment to the task that would get them a proper job in a newspaper”. Hooray, that’s surely internet bonehead bingo.
Let’s for a moment overlook Declan’s convenient exclusion of the BBC, RTE, CNN, Al-Jazeera, NPR and all the other broadcast news websites out there. Let’s just look at his notion of “quality” in the press.
Writes Declan, “the internet has shown the value of newspapers, with their culture of accuracy and accountability which has been formed over a period of centuries”. Culture of accuracy and accountability? Read an EU or Princess Diana headline in the Daily Express. Read a cancer headline in the Daily Mail. Accountable? Accurate?
Declan has fallen into that narrow view of a journalism Golden Age that lasted from Watergate to about 1990. It overlooks the biased penny press of the early 19th century, the yellow press of the late 1890s and the Sunday Sport.
And he has identified the problem. The newspaper industry “flagellates itself for failing to develop a ‘business model’ for the online age. But then there has never been a business model, and there will never be a business model, which is based on giving it away for free.” Apart from Metro, the Evening Standard, the Dublin People etc.
Declan has an “obvious thing” and a “pretty smart solution” to heal this combined sickness. Paywalls. Well so far, so original.
Still you have to hand it to Declan. For a guy who knows fuck-all about the internet, he’s a dab hand at trolling.
"It will take years, they say, before the gains show up in the economic statistics, just as it did for computers to prove they were engines of productivity."
Tom: It's a lovely day for a launch, here, live at Cape Canaveral, at
the lower end of the Florida Peninsula, and the purpose of
today's mission is truly, really electrifying.
Man 2: That's correct, Tom. The lion's share of this flight will be
devoted to the study of the effects of weightlessness on tiny
Tom: Unbelievable, and just imagine the logistics of weightlessness.
And of course, this could have literally millions of applications
here on Earth — everything from watchmaking to watch repair.
Homer: Boring. Tom: Now let's look at the crew a little.
Man 2: They're a colorful bunch. They've been dubbed "the Three
Musketeers". Heh heh heh –
Tom: And we laugh legitimately. There's a mathematician, a different kind of mathematician, and a statistician.