Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why would I pay for a newspaper online?

That's a bigger question than it looks, and one that The Chronicle-Herald in Halifax, Nova Scotia would pay to answer.

The Chronicle-Herald has been struggling just like most papers across the continent. In fact, the city had two subscription papers up until 2007 when the Daily News shut things down. I'm sure that they are trying to figure this mess out - how to increase readership, so they can increase ad revenues, while cutting back to a skeleton staff. I know of at least one solution - a newspaper sale. Last week I received a call offering me 45% off a subscription. I don't even know how much that is (the caller didn't say, they just said the percentage) but it's probably within my affordable range. But for news, it's not about spending the money, it's about utility. I read the paper at work - after I've read my blog roll, tweetdeck and handful of online news sources.

Of course the list of problems that plague this industry is longer and more complicated than a guy like me denying a 45% off subscription. There's media saturation, competition from alternative sources that are faster or more accessible, deflating ad budgets from national ad buyers in crisis, etc. As I do enjoy reading off of paper and see value around the idea of the printed newspaper, I'd like to hope that some of the players in the newspaper industry are at least trying to think sideways on how they can deliver the news and make money.

Last week the Chronicle-Herald tried an online poll that asked the question: Would you pay for an online version of the Chronicle-Herald? Was this a glimpse at the future? To pack it in like that paper on the west coast and move to an online model. The answers from the readership was a resounding no. 81% of respondents said they would not pay for an online version of the paper. Ironic considering they were answering the questions online. Maybe the poll question should have been directed at advertisers: Would you pay print ad rates for better visability online?

The problem is not that the Chronicle-Herald is looking to save itself. The problem is that it is looking to do so using the same model that is currently leaking money. The idea to just move the paper online is the same mistake often seen from any compnay looking to:

1) reach new markets of people, or
2) increase interest from existing customers

They use the same tactics offline to move a product online. When a business model is on life support in the 'real world' moving the business model online only prolonges its failure. For the newspaper industry, a move online would require a different set of priorities. It's a different market with different players. Readers are different. Although many online readers probably read the paper - online they tend to read differently, browsing, linking and scanning through information.

The key to the newspaper industry will be to find a way to do what it does best, while reaching the types of readers that attract advertising.
  • Maybe it's a mixture of staff taking a hyper-local approach to the community with opportunities for reader response and influence. Step up the editorial. Listen to the reactions and taylor the content. Respect your readership. If it's readers you need than attract readers, not advertisers. I hate arriving on a site to have an ad jump in the way of my reading. "Site domination" is attractive to companies, but it's just another version of spam.
  • Maybe it's an online advertising model that differentiates from the usual pay-per-click banner ads, like a monthly rate regardless of clicks. Or try what I mentioned earlier - offer online ad rates that mirror print ad rates. Find out what makes (or is that 'made) paying print rates tollerable and create a solution online. For example, don't have alternating banner or big box ads. Offer exclusive space or relevant space. Develop a bank of advertisers that is served to the reader or the article (like Facebook or Google does). If it's advertisers you need than attract advertisers, while maintaining readers.
  • Or maybe it's segmenting the distribution of information to those who want it. I don't read the obituaries, classifieds or comics. Don't send them to me. There are existing online tools that could distribute news in this foramt. I follow the Globe and Mail on Twitter and I get news a hundred times a day.
There are many different ideas that might help, but trying to continue business under the same business model is not one of them.