New Year Report: newspapers have their hands full in 2014 when it comes to digital media
The newspaper industry would love nothing more than 2014 to be the year they settle on their strategies for digital media platforms: paywalls, mobile, tablet editions, all become areas where publishers know what they want to do, and know where they want to go. But, let’s be honest, there is a lot on their plate, and even succeeding in one of these areas will be a major accomplishment.
2013 was certainly the year of the paywall. In 2012 the trend grew so that up to a quarter of daily newspapers had launched paywalls. Estimates are that in 2013 the number grew to a third to maybe a majority of papers having some kind of paywall. But a number of papers torn down or weakened their paywalls in 2013, showing that even now the industry is divided on the issue.
Paywalls work best where the information behind the paywall is particularly valuable. That is why financial newspapers have adopted and succeeded with their paywalls – performing far better than their general news counterparts. Major national newspapers such as The New York Times, too, have succeeded, at least when one measures paid circulation growth. Digital subscription growth has grown at the NYT to the point where revenue from readership has surpassed revenue from advertising – though it has not prevented continued slides in overall revenue.
That means that for some newspapers, paywalls can be part of the answer to their revenue problems, but not THE answer. But that in not necessarily the way many journalists and paid content advocates see it. For them, newspapers will have to move from being dependent on advertising to being dependent on paid readership. This philosophy, it is obvious, is influencing decision far beyond their websites.
Few newspapers have moved hard into mobile. Even the NYT, which many point to the leading newspaper when it comes to digital, has only four mobile apps for the iPhone, and three of them are getting rather dusty. Instead, the NYT has concentrated on its web efforts, launching a new redesign that, while very attractive on the desktop, actually has some performance issues to work out on tablets. But more importantly, the redesign was all about typography and layout, with only the introduction of native advertising as any major change in direction for that revenue segment.
Magazines and newspapers have taken polar opposite approaches when it comes to tablet editions. While the vast majority of magazine publishers have viewed their tablet editions as extensions of their print editions, not their online editions, newspapers have seen tablets as an extension of their online properties. As a result, most newspaper tablet apps are basically RSS readers, or else a direct replica of their print newspaper.
Because of this, few newspapers launch more than one tablet app. Looking at the NYT again, one sees that they have but two tablet apps – their Newsstand app and one called NYTimes The Collection. Their names are a giveaway to how the paper looks at its other digital editions: they are extensions of the web.
Tribune Interactive, which like the NYT, was an early launcher of both mobile and tablets apps, now has but one app in the Apple Newsstand, and that one probably was driven locally (Explore Florida). The Tribune Company is a good example of the state of the industry as the papers are to be either moved to a new, separate publishing company, or else eventually divested. When one is trying to decide whether one even wants to own a newspaper, it is hard to prioritize digital media product launches.
Because of this, it is difficult to see 2014 as a major year for digital media for the newspaper industry. The action may be in M&A and other areas more fundamental to the business. But if I could wish for three wishes for the industry it would be that 1) the ad teams became more involved in both mobile and tablet apps; 2) the editorial teams rethink their tablet editions, experimenting with a hybrid form that is both web and print inspired; and 3) that new, funded players enter the newspaper business that are interested in exploiting the existing readership from a business perspective rather than simply from a political perspective.