The future of journalism – should media think like tech companies?

The Australian paywall

I went to a new type of media briefing a couple of days ago. “New” because it was the old media world reaching out to engage with the new media world. The old media in this case was News Limited’s masthead The Australian – shortly launching their digital subscription/ freemium business model, a.k.a paywall. And as uneasy as it would have made the old guard feel, the proof was that we, the new media world of bloggers and social influencers, were there to chat, ask questions and perhaps offer insights, in our analysis of where the future of journalism was heading. The old guard is listening.

The death knell of print media, particularly newspapers, has probably been more drawn out than many expected. The rise of news being published online was only one part of the process killing print. The other, far more significant impact has been the rise and rise of social media and its importance in breaking and disseminating news. Facebook might be the monolith in social sharing, but Twitter has the unofficial crown for wider information sharing, and is the one to watch for breaking news and trending topics.

If I (or indeed any of us who live online for the majority of our days and nights) get my news via social channels (particularly Twitter), then clearly a premium masthead looking to monetize its content on digital platforms has a big task on its hands. Competing with breaking news that’s free content on Twitter is not where the bucks are going to be made. To be on the front foot of breaking news is an expensive process, and The Australian management assured us the majority of the new digital strategy investment has been in journalists. So those journos need to be offering deeper value in terms of insight and analysis. Luckily, The Australian has already built its value proposition around quality Australian journalistic commentary: led by Paul Kelly, the analysis offered on The Australian could be the central reason for subscribers and readers to move into the digital subscription model.

Pros (what The Australian digital subscription model has considered already)

  1. Digital content is more than words on a screen. The Australian digital team spoke about journalists taking video crews to the interviews to create subscriber premium content. Here’s hoping they understand great digital is also more than video. The New York Times does superlative infographics and knows its strengths: its meta title is breaking news, world news and multimedia.
  2. Curation. The 5 and 10 minute “Editors’ Choice” is ideal for the time poor and the decision fatigued. Here, subscribers will find a short list of the day’s “need to knows” as curated by The Australian editors.
  3. A porous paywall. Commentary and in depth analysis are the main carrot for the paid subscriptions, but in the freemium model, editors have discretionary power to move content in and out of the paywall to serve other needs (I imagine getting unique browsers up on key days or for critical content will be part of this strategy)
  4. The masthead as an offline content delivery platform. The Australian (and other mastheads) as a content platform – extending into events for example is a natural progression, particularly for the lifestyle sub-brands, which have the most mainstream appeal.
  5. Mobile as a key consumption medium. We saw the preview of the mobile optimised The Australian site aimed at smartphones, steering away from phone app development, which is probably wise considering costs associated and the fragmentation of the Android platform. The Australian was first to market when the iPad 1 launched in Australia in 2010 and the iPad app is being reworked. We can only hope they will consider trends such as Nielsen’s recent report that shows 40% of tablet and smartphone owners use them whilst watching tv.
  6. Try new things. The Australian delivery team seemed to be willing to try new things. Which counts for a lot. Best to use tech startups as your guiding principle – always be in beta, fail fast and learn from your mistakes quickly.
  7. Invest for the long term. The Australian and News Digital team seem to be prepared for a long haul. They cited Foxtel subscription model. It took many years to become profitable, but now its more profitable than other tv networks.

Now here’s the rub. Where the future of journalism lies, is in the intersection of technology, content and the subscriber desires. Here’s where media companies need to start thinking like technology companies, to start to anticipate what their readers and subscribers want, and deliver it to them while enabling them to become part of the news gathering and feedback process.
Here’s my list of considerations on the future of journalism The Australian digital subscription hasn’t tackled yet, the cons:

  1. Appealing to new/younger/digital savvy audiences. The Australian digital subscription platform is for the migrated and migrating – people who were already readers or subscribers of the print edition. Many of the other bloggers/commentators asked about plans for attracting younger audiences – how quickly that needs to happen is probably dependent on how quickly the existing subscriber base “die off” whether literally or whether to other titles, platforms or content. How to attract the younger, digital natives to the content The Australian is offering is a bigger picture strategy, and a long term one at that.
  2. Mining data to deliver user centric content. The Australian’s Digital delivery could focus as a reader or subscriber-centric model. It’s likely to be (in the short term at least) an editor driven model. By its very nature, digital publishing is a technical medium. But not just tech for tech’s sake. What makes technology relevant to people is its ability to change people’s lives, habits and ultimately the businesses like media publishing that now rely on technology for delivery. What technology offers publishers such as The Australian is data – precision in a deeper understanding their readers and subscribers habits than media publishers have ever had before. While I’m certain that the new digital subscription will have basic analytics around the platform’s content consumption, there’s very deep analytics that could be used to develop smarter content delivery that’s genuinely user centric rather than driven by the journalists, editors, or publisher’s agenda.
  3. Personalising the news. The idea of “destination” news versus the “personalisation” of news is at the heart of the shift to social platforms. With personalised/social news, I can subscribe to the topics, journalists or subject matters that interest me rather than have to sift through headlines, and filter out that which doesn’t. The popularity of news curation applications such as Flipboard is a key trend. Flipboard brings me news feeds based on my personalized interests. I can add in my trusted sources of news, and it serves me an integrated user experience in terms of topics, sharability and reposting to my social channels.
  4. Frictionless sharing. Yes I know it’s the buzzword of the moment. In terms of competitors, the real competition in the space of digital news platforms are aggregators and third party RSS feeder news applications (see previous point). While the SMH iPad app might have a decent “consumption” user experience, it has an appalling “interaction” and “sharing” user experience. The Australian needs to look at Flipboard (iPad app), Rockmelt (social browser built on Chrome) and the deep social API platform integration used by The Huffington Post which serves me up the stories my Facebook friends have been reading. The Guardian have developed a deeply integrated Facebook app which does the same thing in Facebook – tells me what Guardian stories my Facebook friends are reading in my Facebook feed
  5. Reader input on what makes news. The next progression? Leveraging social measurement and trends and crowdsourcing the news, and the opinion driving. The Guardian is also experimenting with opening up newslists, and using their readership to help decide what’s news. Real time trending topics on Twitter and heavyweight social sharing on Facebook can be analysed to give insights to inform editors decisions on what should and shouldn’t be behind the paywall
  6. Making sure the journalists have personal digital brands. Curated news, sought after content and paid for commentary relies on personal as well as professional credibility, and while the Australian’s journalists and editors have oodles of “print” cred, their journalists are not very social. In 2009, when the majority of global journalists and broadcasters were jumping on Twitter to build communities of contacts and fans, The Australian editor was busy discouraging and frowning on their own people doing anything as modern as tweeting. This lag can be translated into a social disadvantage: while Twitter is busy promoting top US journalists and broadcasters in their Twitter for Newsrooms guide, The Australian is lacking any high profile “social savvy” journalists.
  7. Sophisticated syndication to help build thought leadership. Syndicating content was an area touched on in our briefing. While UKs The Guardian was held up as a great example of application development, The Guardian has a very sophisticated digital platform, serving syndicated content via a content API to aggregation and curation sites such as PSFK.

It may be baby steps for The Australian with the launch of the digital subscription, but at least by intention, it seems like they are willing to take risks and try new things. By delivering content that’s relevant to their audience, in the places and times they want to consume it, The Australian can build a thriving digital media business.

Whether The Australian can work across the multiple fronts necessary and embrace technology more fully to transform their business in time, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Read more opinions at The Future of Journalism, Servant of ChaosMediahunter, Ross Dawson & Mumbrella