Can traditional media see the "tractor trailer" coming?
In my previous post, I interviewed Russell Wangersky of The Telegram, about how that paper is being affected by online competition. While that paper seems to be holding its own, everyone knows that newspapers in general are slowly dying.
The real question is, can these papers make the transition to all-digital without shedding readers and advertisers? It's a question of timing, since The Telegram probably couldn't do it right now. Not enough readers and thus advertisers would be willing to make the leap with them.
The danger in waiting for the right time,' of course, is that a more nimble upstart will come along with the blend of local, original content readers want, and beat The Telegram to the punch.
Greg Locke wouldn't mind being that upstart.
On August 8, 2008, he launched nlpress.ca, Newfoundland's own independent news service with an exclusively online presence. The site is taking a bold step, in that content is not free readers must subscribe via PayPal, at rates of $15 per month or $135 per year.
"The online news agency gathers, syndicates and disseminates original news, information, commentary and analysis about all things Newfoundland and Labrador," said the launch press release. "Current affairs, business, financial, politics, arts, travel, social and cultural content in text, audio, photo, video and multimedia formats by professional and experienced journalists, photographers, editors and producers is made available to the public through the subscription based website and to media clients and communications professionals through customized syndication service."
The site offers a number of freelance news and feature contributors, as well as photography, an editorial cartoonist (John Andrews) and columnist Ray Guy.
In preparing this item, I exchanged emails with Greg Locke, who offered his views on the future of newsprint versus digital content.
"It all comes down to the old way is dying and something new will take its place," Locke said. "It will be the same content but modified for a new media. You can't just layout a website like a newspaper page. It is a new media and the content can't be constrained by old ideas about presentation and those page-emulating programs that some publications are trying are stupid and show a lack of vision and complete lack of understanding of how the web works."
Regarding the content itself, Locke says the quality will not be dictated by the nature of the medium.
"As with all things there will be those that are good and those that suck. Just like newspapers and journalism today in print and broadcast. Will there be crap? Of course. But it won't be crap because of the medium. It will be crap because of lazy and/or cheap publishers and content producers. Just like there is crap in newspapers and on radio and TV already. As with any marketplace it's up to the consumers to find the product they want or like... To each his own. The good (or exclusive) stuff costs more to produce and sells at a higher premium to more discerning consumers and the rest is, well, for the rest Not all journalists, newspapers or websites are created equal."
Regarding the decline of print and rise of the digital age, Locke pulls no punches.
"What part of this are the traditional media types not understanding? They are like moose licking the salt off the TCH. As long as there is salt they won't look up to see the tractor-trailer about to flatten them. Given, not everyone is wired. But by sheer numbers the online market reaches more people, has cheaper overhead and is not constrained by distribution or broadcast range. Where is the downside? Less overhead and more eyeballs is great for content providers' and advertisers. The newsroom along with the sales and subscription department should be happy."
Locke foresees larger, urban and national-market newspapers being pretty much "wiped out" within 10 years. "But I think the market will remain for small, local and specialty papers like we have an abundance of around St. John's. They have niche appeal for both readers and advertisers who know their ad is reaching their targeted market."
The biggest competitive advantage for online news services is their unlimited market exposure, Locke said.
"On the web your circulation is the world... not Clarenville. The other advantage, for content quality, is you are not constrained by or dictated to by demands of specific space on the page or air time to fill... or a looming press deadline or broadcast time. That's important. Think about that. Think about how much column inches and air time limitations have shaped journalism. It is responsible for squashing a lot of good journalism and promoting a lot of frivolous filler."
The big question, then, is how's business? Are they managing to sign up subscribers in an environment where so many are conditioned to expect free content?
"Within three months we had enough subscribers to pay our fixed costs overhead for the first year. So, that's something I guess," Locke said, adding that attitudes toward user-pay are in a state of evolution.
"There are those who think the Internet and everything on it is free and those who are quite comfortable paying for service and product they receive online I actually got an email from a woman berating me for charging for access to our work. My argument, of course, is that you pay for your newspaper and cable TV, so why wouldn't you pay for stuff just because it comes into your house or work through a computer or cell phone?"
The site has plans to grow into the future, Locke said. "We have been talking to other independent (and I use that work reluctantly) online only, subscription-based news organizations in Canada, USA, UK and Iceland that may have content of interest to Newfoundlanders, in hopes of developing content sharing and licensing agreements. And no, I can't tell you who they are yet. The very fact that so many people came on board early contributing content, investment money and IT development services is the main thing so far. Again, it couldn't have been done without years of experience, working relationships and contacts. Needless to say, my 25 years in the business earned me a pretty good contact list in both the news and technology business worldwide.
"That said, every time the server emails my cell phone to tell me there is a new subscriber it makes me happy."
Locke said the site has been built to allow for expansion of content and functionality, and is operating at about 30 per cent of its potential, in terms of content presentation. It currently updates with new content at least twice a week. Future plans include introduction of a version of the site for cell phones, and the hiring of newsroom staff to produce more content.
And that last point is crucial, because content is what will make or break this site. In a future post, I will dive deeper into nlpress.ca, and review the content in more detail.
In the meantime, if you would like to read more outspoken observations from Greg Locke, on the future of newsprint versus digital, check out his blog entry from December 22, 2007.