How to Save Journalism

Posted on August 27, 2012

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Yesterday evening I was lucky enough to attend Neiman Journalism Lab’s Happy Hour here in Boston. (Is there anything better than drinks and conversation with smart journos? I think not.)

I got to talk to a number of incoming Neiman fellows, who were bright and upbeat until I mentioned I worked for a publication that was about how to make money from paid content. The momentary despair that swept over some people’s faces made me realize I should probably write about how I don’t think journalism is about to die.

Let’s be clear: The doomsayers of journalism haven’t studied its history. The same arguments were made when radio came out, and then again with the advent of television. What’s true is that newspaper will get a smaller market share as the market is flooded with more free product. Local newspapers, especially, will have to scale back. But they can also survive and thrive if they adopt smart digital strategies.

Here’s a 5 step plan:

  1. Don’t call your paywall a paywall (ironic, as Paywall Times is perhaps the best SEO term to get newspaper executives to this blog, but nevertheless, it’s a bad marketing term for your consumer audience).
  2. Instead, create online or digital subscriptions.
  3. If you’re afraid to charge online, charge for the convenience of tablet and mobile content delivery (The Guardian does this somewhat well).
  4. Since it’s easier to sell subscriptions to niche information than to general news, create micro-sites (like The New York Times has) and offer separate subscriptions. Very few people feel the need to subscribe to all of a newspaper’s content — often we just read the sections we like.
  5. Avoid bundling, especially if you create both online and digital subscriptions. Value every platform through which your content is distributed (Columbia Journalism Review is picking up on this idea). If you don’t, consumers will just opt for the free version, whatever format it’s in.

For example, at the Neiman cocktail hour, I spoke to a sports writer at a major city paper and he mentioned how they can’t seem to sell advertising to the sports section. I told him they won’t be able to; consumers no longer buy electronics or cars by perusing the paper — they google. But, sports fans are some of the most enthusiastic readers and most would love the ability to get scores on their mobile device while commuting to work or read their favorite sports writers on their tablet when they get home and want to chill out on the couch. So instead of expecting people to pay for access after reading 10 unrelated articles online, create a digital subscription to the sports section.

The travel section, on the other hand, should always be free and supported by advertising (my sports writer friend mentioned that his paper never had trouble selling out those pages). Very few consumers read a travel section regularly; most just search online for articles when they’re planning a trip and have a destination in mind.

If you think consumers won’t pay for access to your newspaper’s content through digital platforms, you’re wrong. If you think I’m wrong, send me your hardest business problems and I’ll answer them here at Paywall Times.

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