Darren Lemon: Newspapers have to get on board with online business
Unless you were in America recently, you probably missed a magazine cover that was hailed by its producers as the future of publishing.
The magazine in question is Esquire ( www.esquire.com) and a limited edition of its October issue featured a panel with flashing slogans and changing images.
It was created using “electronic ink” — similar to the technology used in Amazon’s Kindle electronic book reader. The whole thing was powered by a tiny battery.
Even though the idea was dismissed by the technology magazine Wired ( www.wired.com) as something of a gimmick, it was notable for two things.
It perked up interest in a flagging print market and raised the possibility that in future, the addition of a radio circuit could enable magazines to update their content hours or even days after the buyer walks away from the news stand.
These are tough times for the traditional media in the US and elsewhere.
The New York Times ( www.nytimes.com) reported an 11.7% fall in advertising revenues in September, compared with 11.3% growth a year previously.
But the Times is not alone. Property and recruitment advertisements — traditionally the bread and butter of newspaper advertising sales — have declined markedly in the US because of the economic downturn.
Newspaper groups are laying off staff at a growing rate. The Los Angeles Times (www.latimes.com), the Baltimore Sun ( www.baltimoresun.com), the Chicago Tribune ( www.chicagotribune.com) and the Miami Herald ( www.miamiherald.com) are just four of the titles where the axe has fallen.
Aside from the credit crunch, the print media’s woes have another major cause — and its name is Google. In the first quarter of this year, the search giant raked in $5bn in ad revenue.
To put it another way, that’s more than half of what the entire newspaper industry made in the same period.
And let’s not forget the news bloggers and aggregators. Perhaps the most famous of them is Matt Drudge, whose conservative-leaning www.drudgereport.com led the way.
Arianna Huffington’s www.huffingtonpost.com has had staggering success on the other side of the political fence.
The latest entrant into the market is another British woman, Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, who recently launched www.thedailybeast.com.
On this side of the Atlantic we have Mick Fealty’s http://sluggerotoole.com.
Analysts reckon that if Huffington’s site was sold tomorrow, the likely asking price would be around $200m — not bad for somebody who started the site from scratch three years ago.
What Google and the bloggers know — and what newspaper publishers failed to recognise until it was too late — is that the internet is not merely a way of selling a printed product.
The internet is the product. They are offering rich content, much of it supplied by unpaid contributors. In Tina Brown’s case some of it is specially commissioned and attracts a subscription fee.
The music industry fought a long hard battle (which it nearly lost) to regain control of its intellectual property when start-ups like Napster tried giving it away free.
The publishing business took on Google when it wanted to make books available free online.
The news media is the only industry that has given its own content away for nothing, thus removing the incentive to buy the product, while the new kids on the block who understood the internet have gone on to outflank the old hands.
The challenge is finding a model that works in the face of so much new competition
Where traditional news sites can score is with unique material. For example, the Irish Times (www.irishtimes.com) offers a paid-for archive of its stories going back to 1859.
Or you can embrace the fragmented nature of the new media, as this newspaper is doing with Belfast Telegraph TV ( www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/tv).
Belfast Telegraph TV, which was launched by Independent News & Media (NI) in February 2007, is the newspaper’s digital gateway to local and international news, sport, business, entertainment and opinion.
Nowadays, the big challenge for all media is finding a model that works in the face of so much new competition. It all comes down to approach. For some people, the web is a glittery add-on to real life. To others, it’s a whole different way of doing business.