Henry Blogdet bought a newspaper today. He bought it because it contained a story he couldn’t read elsewhere- as he quite rightly states, this whole “write original content and get people to pay for it” concept is an integral part of the future of the news industry. The problem is, how often does that paying part happen? Henry is not going to buy a subscription to the Inquirer and Mirror- he only wanted to read one story. Local newspapers can’t survive on people buying one copy every three months.
So, a counter example, of sorts. A few years ago I lived in Victoria, British Columbia and would frequently walk past the offices of the Times Colonist newspaper, dreaming of a day when I could work there. So, when I visited the city again recently I was disappointed to find that my former dream desk probably isn’t even owned by the Times Colonist any more- their ongoing difficulties have forced them to lease out half of their office.
Like many struggling media organisations, the Times Colonist has opted to put a paywall on their online content. While there aren’t any official figures to gauge success, my conversations with friends in the city (a demographic that admittedly skews younger than Victoria’s average age) suggest that people aren’t buying. Put simply, they don’t think that the Times Colonist provides $9.95-worth of content each month. And indeed, how can it? Newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and the Globe and Mail offer unparalleled coverage from international news desks, recipes, book reviews and much more- for just a few dollars extra.
But they tend not to cover current events on Vancouver Island, Canada. People want and need that coverage. How can local newspapers stay alive? Indulge me while I describe an entirely outlandish and unrealistic concept.
Few local newspapers write their own international (or even national) coverage- for instance, the Times Colonist gets its international stories from the AP and national ones from The Canadian Press. But that’s never really highlighted, because you don’t really want to show your readers that the paywalled content they are reading is available for free elsewhere.
So let’s turn that on its head. Don’t syndicate content that is available for free. Let’s have the paywalled big guys- the New York Times, the National Post, the Washington Post, whoever- make their content available for syndication. Have them host it if you like, but more importantly, keep the branding. Show your readers that they’re getting pulitzer-winning coverage as part of their subscription to the local newspaper. In this model few people outside of the Beltway have a subscription to the Washington Post, and few outside of New York have a subscription to the Times. People in Victoria subscribe to the Times Colonist, with national news presented by The National Post (by cruel twist of fate, the owners of the recently-paywalled National Post used to also own the Times Colonist- you have to imagine it would have been a very straightforward syndication deal if they still did).
The change to the local newspapers would be relatively minimal- they retain their existing relationships with customers and the city that surrounds them. They would have to charge more for subscriptions, but would be providing far more value along with it. The bigger organisations, on the other hand, would be facing sea change. Suddenly the majority of their money would come from business to business transactions, not business to consumer- the impact of such a change can’t be overstated. And while they would still sell a complete newspaper/online offering to local customers, the vast majority of readers would consume content in a much more piecemeal fashion (though I’d argue this is already happening online today).
Doing something like this would involve a large newspaper risking everything by going all-in on an utterly unproven model – and I don’t think we’re at that level yet. And any newcomer faces a chicken and egg scenario- no-one is going to buy your content until you have a brand to back it. But you can’t build a brand without people buying your content.
So this post is really just an idle thought exercise. But the question remains- local newspapers are a vital part of the news industry, how do they reinvent themselves and stay with us?