With different ways of doing business there needs to be different rules. The Recorded Music Industry, the Movie Industry and the Print Publishing Industry among others have learned that the hard way over the last 15-20 years.
The model which news and magazine publishers are currently struggling with is one where they leave their past behind. They no longer require huge printing plants and massive distribution methods to get their product to the customer. They could save huge amounts of money and still reach a rather large customer base by instead selling through the Apple AppStore, Kindle and the like. As John Lanchester wrote recently in the London Review of Books:
The OECD report puts the cost of printing a typical paper at 28 per cent and the cost of sales and distribution at 24 per cent: so the physical being of the paper absorbs 52 per cent of all costs… ‘a source with knowledge of the real numbers tells us we’re so low in our estimate of the (New York) Times’s printing costs that we’re not even in the ballpark.’
Late last year Ross Dawson predicted the extinction timeline of “newspapers”. At the time I disputed his timeline, but now I realise he has probably underestimated the speed of the death of that medium in many of the regions he explored. However, I also think he is wrong to focus on the manner of the delivery of information. In effect, I don’t think the medium actually matters anymore. We can’t know how people will be consuming content in 30 years, just as in 1981, when cellular networks were first trialled in the USA, they hardly could imagine what we would be using them for 30 years later.
Lanchester’s article takes a different tack to Dawson. His is a plea to let us pay for content we want and can afford – no matter how it is delivered. For the Publishers to not hide it behind Paywalls with dreadful user experiences or surround dumbed down versions with linkbait headlines in order to attract eyeballs for advertisers.
As more and more of the population gains internet access this becomes more important, because it is in those countries which right now have low mobile internet usage who have the highest ratio of mobiles to landlines. It won’t be long before the networks are upgraded to a good enough standard and the technology gets cheap enough for the majority of the population to be accessing the news on their mobiles. And no amount of digital paper will stop that.
I, for one, am glad I’ve been around in a time of almost completely free information, I’m going to make the most of it while it still exists – but I’m happy to pay fair value for that information. As long as you make it easier for me to get it, and don’t restrict how I consume it. The rules have changed, those who benefitted from the old rules are always the most likely to cling to them for longer, but there is a market which will pay to consume your stories if you deign to make it easy for them to do so.
Ed Dale feels like he has murdered an old friend, but I rather think the publishers have killed themselves. They talk about their readers “disappearing”, yet none of us have gone away. If they choose to continue to abide by the old rules, if they choose to focus on the medium rather than the message, then there are plenty who are willing and able to fill the gaps. (Update: here’s Matthew Ingram at GigaOM which extends this) Maybe they’ll wake up sooner than later and there is still an opportunity to make money when their presses finally stop running.
Right now, it’s still their call.