Newspapers Are Not Dead…Yet

A subject close to my heart was discussed on the Today Show this morning – the demise of newspapers in the digital age. I don’t believe that newspapers are necessarily finished – I like to read the paper on a quiet Sunday morning – but there is no doubt they are struggling at the moment.

News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch has mooted that the way forward for newspapers is getting readers to pay a subscription few to a newspaper’s website. Over the past couple of years newspapers have been shedding readers and circulation hand over fist as people switch to digital news outlets – most of which, until now, have been free.

I think that this will be the way to go. In order to pay for good journalism you need to pay for it, and it seems the current model – advertising only – is not working for most outlets.

There are a couple of problems with it. First, it is hard to measure how much penetration the web gets. Most models use a click-through system, whereby advertisers agree to pay a certain amount depending on how many readers clicked on their ads. This has its good and bad points. Good points include giving the client a measurable gauge on how many people looked at their advertisement, which in turn holds the newspaper accountable to its client.

The bad point is, if somebody doesn’t click through on the advert, you can’t measure the penetration of just visualising the ad – ie, even if people don’t click on the ad on any given page, they still see it on said page, but you can’t tell how much notice they’ve taken of the advert – did they completely ignore it, or did they notice it?

Another problem with online advertising is that it can be very intrusive. Who has been half-way through reading a story, when an ad pops up that interrupts your train of thought. This leads to a negative experience for the reader, and vicariously their take on the advert that has just annoyed them.

Which brings us back to paid subscriptions. As stated, it sounds like a great idea. People buy a Kindle ebook, or use their iPhone to download news from their online news source, whether it be the SMH or Daily Telegraph, or whatever. However, there is one major flaw in Murdoch’s thinking. He needs to get everybody on board. If only one major news outlet is a hold out, then it will fall apart. As a consumer, why would I pay an annual subscription fee for news when I can get it for free from another source?

I can think of only one way it would work even if there was a hold out is by providing content that is compelling and must-read. And this is where you hard-nosed journalists come in. I believe that if news organisations invest in great journalists that are providing outstanding content, then it might just work.