Why newspapers really needed to start tagging stories 10 years ago

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.

Some fag-packet sums on the Times paywalls

I am still trying to get my head around the Times’s and Sunday Times’s experiments with paywalls.

In its last valid ABCe figures, Times Online had about 1.2 million unique users a day.

If, as the Guardian and FT have suggested, about 10 per cent of users convert to paying £2 a week:

120,000 users x £2 x52 = £12,480,ooo a year.

Wired magazine quotes an Enders report which suggests Times Online made £15 million-£18 million in annual ad revenue before the paywall. Because the audience will drop so drastically, Wired guesses that the advertising take will fall to about a third of that after the paywall (I have no idea what they base this guess on, but keeping a third of your revenues with a tenth of the audience may also be optimistic).

So at the upper end of that scale, let’s say £6 million in advertising revenue on top of the £12.5 million in subscriptions. That makes £18.5 million – an increase of £500,000 in online revenues post-paywall.

That doesn’t seem like much of a gain and offsets a little more than two days’ reported losses at both titles (£240,000 per day).

Nor can it be too cheering for  journalists at both Times titles waiting to hear about the take-up of 80 voluntary redundancies, which closes today.

It gets worse — Paid Content quotes research by Enders Analysis saying the take-up could be as low as 2 per cent — making about £1 million a year. Even if the advertising revenues stayed the same as above, that would be an £11million loss.

It gets worse still — as I said yesterday, even the optimistic-looking 10 per cent will dwindle because stories are only discoverable from inside the paywall. There will be no Google search engine indexing. Surely this means that ad rates will also fall over time as the clicks to deep links fall off and are not replaced?

I pointed out yesterday how well-designed and enticing the new websites for both titles look — was it really beyond their capability to increase the uniques to the 30 million mark?

The Guardian’s website, which had 29.8 million uniques in February [2010] generated £25m in revenues last year [2009] (PaidContent)

The Timeses are trying to cut their combined £100 million editorial budget by 10 per cent, or £10 million. If they are really trying to protect the newspapers and their dwindling revenues with a paywall that limits the growth of online revenues, they could miss out on twice that in online revenue.

Can anyone explain the logic of that to me? Have I messed up the maths somehow?

Tuppence-worth on Rupert Murdoch’s Times paywalls

It was quite entertaining to watch this Sky News interviewer try to tame Jeff Jarvis on the issue of the Times paywalls (the Sky guy looks to be shielding himself with some sort of tablet computer and uses the word “monetarising”, so the odds are stacked against him from the start).

While Jarvis’s language about Rupert Murdoch is a little direct, it is difficult to disagree with his conclusions – the Times is cutting itself off from the rest of the web. Therefore, how will it grow as the web grows? How will it increase its audience and reach online, how will it attract new readers via the new tools the Web is sure to throw up?

The New York Times, which tried a paywall experiment and relented —  partly under pressure from its own columnists unhappy with the lifeblood of links, tweets and comments being tied off — will install a metered model in January, where incoming blog links do not count against a reader’s allotted “free reads”. Given that most of the NYT content I read is via a blog or twitter link, I don’t see how that will raise any extra cash from me,  but at least they’re still in the open.

Malcolm Coles offers up a different problem – the divisions between the paper Times and Sunday Times start looking a lot shakier online:

“Forcing people to subscribe to both sites but keeping them entirely separate, with no cross linking, seems a bit odd.”

The people who work there make an eloquent case for online journalism (although not one of them mentions charging):

We have been here before. When Rupert Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal, he was very gung-ho about dropping their paywall, until the economics of the situation were brought home to him.

The irony of the situation is the Times website now looks fantastic. With the relentless focus of an operation that must either work or drop somebody in the shit, it has been redesigned. It is clean, there is hierarchy, the vibrant colours are from the Times-branded palette, the use of pictures is great. The interactive graphics and the Spectrum photo galleries are especially eye-catching.

However, it all raises the question that if this was worth doing as a spring clean before the paywall goes up, why wasn’t there this level of excitement and interest in how the website looked when it was officially chasing unique users and advertising money? The FT reports this morning that fewer than 10% of the Times’s unique 21 million-ish users are likely to pay for the revamped content. Would this level of energy and creativity have brought in enough extra unique users to justify staying in the open?

Journalists these days are being constantly harried to find the business model in what they do. On the Times’s and Sunday Times’s new-look websites, (video here, if you can stand the awful soundtrack and a PaidContent slideshow of pages here), the online editorial people have clearly upped their game, the designers have played a blinder and the infographics team – especially on the excellent eureka graphics – have pulled out all the stops. They are more than pulling their weight in trying to adapt to this experimental business model – but where is the commercial side of the operation? What are they bringing to the table?

It would be a terrible shame if, having come up with an elegant, if  newspaperesque, design (almost to the point of the website being a better designed paper than the Times itself), all of this hard work is seen by fewer readers than any other Fleet Street website. If enough of them pay, of course, it will be hailed a success, but for now it feels like Jarvis was right, and this is a retreat into old ideas rather than a striving for new ones.

The ethics of hyperlocal news, mags and political balance

Journalistic ethics posts all over the place in the past 24 hours.

On Coleen Curry’s blog, there is an interesting take on the philosophy and ethics of small-scale hyperlocal news sites.

Her worry is straightforward – that running a hyperlocal news site as a business may descend into pandering to demographics. While I think the gap she cites between editorial and commercial in print is a lot narrower than she suggests (certainly in Ireland and Britain), it is a legitimate concern.

Howard Owens, of The Batavian, gives an equally simple solution in the comments – “screw the demographics” and concentrate on the journalism. Tell the stories, big and small, positive and negative, with passion and the community will embrace the site and make it pay.

Even more simply, his advice was to go solo — “stop working for the Man” —  and avoid the pressures that may come from working in a keyword-chasing conglomerate looking to “scale” hyperlocal sites.

There is a lengthy post on Media Shift on the implications for magazines publishing in digital format. At times it seems to assume readers are total idiots but does raise the interesting point that digital ads, because they force you to perform an action,  may actually carry fewer ethical pitfalls than print:

” … the new variety of interactive ads, though they still focus on products’ image and create emotions around the products, might in fact be in some ways “purer” than the ads of the past that primarily tried to create impressions of brands in the audience’s minds.”

Greenslade, however, suggests that online journalism has yet to let such earthly concerns prevent it from threatening the established order, unlike print:

“The rise of the commercial press gradually weakened the anti-establishment stance of papers, mainly because their owners – especially the corporate ones – saw no merit in rocking a profitable boat.”

It probably won’t cheer American print journalists though – the bulk of the post is about the “phoney” nature of US papers’ political balance.