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.

The guy who wrote The Dip says the guy who wrote The Tipping Point is wrong about the guy who wrote Free

What utter wank.

Chris Anderson persists in marketing a book, Free (£8.54 from amazon.co.uk) whose relevance failed at about the same time as the international credit markets.

Among other things, Anderson is known for his book, The Long Tail, which at least has the virtue of being based on an observable mathematical phenomenon –  that the less popular a product was, the fewer people bought it and vice versa – ground-breaking stuff.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, a book devoted to how humans have an uncanny gift for quickly sniffing out bullshit, says here that Anderson’s argument is full of holes.

Seth Godin (I haven’t read any of his books – his post is unlikely to change that) and Anderson (in this uber-patronising smugfest) would be a lot easier to take seriously if they addressed some of the questions in Gladwell’s critique rather than giving us one more high school-pitched lesson in economics and marginal cost and an extrapolation as to how it applies to newspapers.

Such as – why YouTube, free darling of the Web 2.0 movement, and case study in Anderson’s book, has yet to make a red cent in profit. Why Amazon’s Kindle 30-70 profit-sharing/copyright deal with the Dallas Morning News is fucked – if the marginal cost of an extra copy is “close enough to nil as can be rounded down”, shouldn’t the deal be a bit more equitable? That the eerily reminiscent Lewis Strauss’s “too cheap to meter” claims failed to materialise and why.

Gladwell excuses Anderson as a “technological utopian” in his misunderstanding of the costs behind running any network. I think he is being too kind – at best Anderson is an after-dinner speaker and new media consultant for whom the book, Free, serves as a business card.

I think I will wait until, like any such advertisement, Anderson’s book reaches the price of its title before reading – it shouldn’t take too long.

And can somebody please call the cops or social services or whoever and free those poor guys trapped in Anderson’s basement cranking out GeekDad posts for Wired?