Saving the Globe From its World of Hurt

One of the geeks here at the Berkman Center walked into a room recently and started poking his index finger down on a newspaper that was laying on the table, as if expecting it to do something electronic. “This isn’t working,” he said.

So true, in so many ways.

Take for example the Boston Globe, New England’s landmark newspaper, and one to which we have subscribed since we got here in 2007. Like nearly all newspapers, the Globe is in Big Trouble. Here’s the opening paragraph from today’s bad news story:

The New York Times Co., which has threatened to shutter The Boston Globe, is seeking deep concessions from the Globe’s largest union that could include pay cuts of up to 20 percent, the elimination of seniority rules and lifetime job guarantees, and millions of dollars in cuts in company contributions to retirement and healthcare plans.

The Times may own the Globe in a legal sense, but in a much broader way the Globe also belongs to the people of Boston and New England. Everybody in New England benefits from the Globe, even if they don’t read or subscribe to it. It was in this sense that Scott Lehigh‘s column yesterday was titled, Readers, have a say in saving your paper. Here’s the long gist:

We’re suffering from a double whammy: A bad recession and a self-defeating business model. Troubled times have sent advertising revenues plummeting. Meanwhile, we’re selling the paper with one hand and giving it away on Boston.com with the other. That’s never made any sense – the more so since website ads aren’t anywhere near the revenue-generator that print ads are.

…I also doubt we’ll be able to maintain the kind of quality newspaper and website readers expect unless we start charging online visitors who don’t subscribe to the paper.

Newspapers, eyeing several earlier failed experiments, including one by the New York Times, are skittish. That approach has worked for the Wall Street Journal, however. And as someone long wary about giving away our product on the Web even as we sell it in print, I think it’s time to try.

So back to my question: What does the Globe mean to you?

Would you pay to read the paper online? Seven-day home delivery currently costs $9.25 a week in the Boston area. Would it be worth $10 or $12 a month to read Globe content on Boston.com? Another idea under discussion in the news industry is micropayments. You’d give a credit card number once, and then be charged a small amount – a nickel, say – for each story you clicked on. Which would you prefer, a subscription or micropayments?

Some think charging for Web content will only deter readers, while keeping links to our website from appearing on other sites. Any payment system must be voluntary, they say. I’m dubious. But tell me, if we nagged you incessantly – ah, make that, politely prompted you at frequent intervals – would you make a voluntary payment of some sort?

Finally, can you think of better ways to have online readers pay for Globe offerings?

Yes, I can. It’s the fifth item in the series of posts below:

  1. Newspapers 2.0 (October 5, 2006)
  2. Still at Newspapers 1.x (August 15, 2007)
  3. Toward a new ecology of journalism (September 12, 2007)
  4. Earth to Newspapers: Abandon Fort Business. (September 19, 2007)
  5. PayChoice: a new business model for newspapers (February 5, 2009)

PayChoice (later re-named EmanciPay) will be an easy way for listeners to pay stations for public radio programming. It is in the early stages of development, aimed toward appearing later this year in the Public Radio Tuner on iPhones. At last report, downloads of the tuner were moving past 1.5 million, so far.

We could do PayChoice for newspapers as well.

Informing PayChoice on the Public Radio Tuner will be a Listen Log, which is one form of Media Logging. We can do a Read Log as well, at least for the electronic versions of newspapers. Among the many things I’d like the log to perform is what I call ascribenation. That is, the ability to ascribe credit to sources — and to pay them as well. Among other things, this addresses the Associated Press’ concerns about ‘misappropriation’ of its role as the first source for many stories for which it goes uncredited.

Jon Garfunkel also has a good idea worth considering. It’s called PaperTrust.

The bottom line here is that a lot of good people are working on solutions. These solutions are not the same old stuff in new wrappers. They’re original ideas, some of which the papers will have no control over.

But they can help. They can tune in to tech development efforts like the ones I descibe here, and welcome their geeks’ participation in them. They can write and post linky text. (The Globe is better than some in this respect, but still link-averse on the whole.) They can finish following the other recommendations they’ll find here (the first of which isn’t too far from what Scott would like to do).

And, it might still be impossible to save the paper.

The question comes down to living without advertising. Can it be done? If so, how? I guarantee that the answer to those questions will come from the outside. From geeks, mostly.

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21 comments

  1. Todd’s avatar

    Easy.

    A combination of ULML and APML on a subsidized Kindle-esque e-reader.

    http://userlabor.org
    http://apml.org

    The phone company gives you a physical phone for free with paid service to their service, the newspapers need to do the same. With the ULML running in the background advertisers get an order of a magnitude more accurate product placement resulting in higher sales.

    What do I win for answering your question? :P

  2. Greg Cannon’s avatar

    This debate strikes me as quite silly, really. I understand that reporters and editors feel their work isn’t being properly valued. But the make ‘em pay crowd presents the issue as if something in the constitution prevents them from charging for online content and the fact that the WSJ can get away with it but others can’t is some kind of great injustice. They also tend to blame publishers for putting profits above all else. Well, if that’s the case and charging was the route to more revenue to support more reporters, then why aren’t the publishers doing it? I suspect it’s because they know it’s ultimately a self-defeating move. Do you run a newspaper? Think people should pay to read online? Then, by all means, charge away. If people pay, and maybe they will, congrats! If they flee, sorry…The flaw with Lehigh’s thinking is that most readers are super-dedicated, super-conscientious types. Not to insult anyone, but they’re not. I suspect a very small number would stick around to punch in their credit card numbers. But for those of us who don’t live in Boston or New York, we’re a lot harder to persuade that our local daily is indispensible. Mine has gone from lsmall bits of weak coverage of my town to none whatsoever. I wouldn’t read it if they paid me.

  3. Nicolas Ward’s avatar

    I think I’d be most interested in a transparent micropayment model, preferably enabled through Paypal. That way, when news I care about is best covered by the Globe (or its online successor?), I’ll pay for those articles, but when I’m reading about the Touareg peace talks in Niger my micropayment goes to, say, Le Mali en Ligne.

    One of the biggest things that stops me from reading an article online is if commenting on it or reading past the first page requires me to create yet another account; micropayments risk falling into the same trap. I understand that single logon isn’t working right now in part because everyone wants to be the single login provider and few want to accept others.

    No matter what happens, I think journalism will survive.

  4. John Caddell’s avatar

    I agree with Nicolas. One outdated concept news organizations need to get over is “subscriber.” There are a limited number of potential subscribers out there, but an unlimited pool of potential readers. With search engines, it’s easier and easier for readers anywhere to find great content.

    To be a subscriber, I have to be willing to pay a lot to get one bundle of content, much of which I won’t read. My subscripton to wsj.com (and soon to the paper itself) is gone for this reason.

    I’d be happy to pay for access to one article I find relevant and important from any publisher. Just don’t make me “subscribe,” and don’t, to Nicolas’ point, make me create yet another account.

  5. Globe Reader’s avatar

    Doc – You seem to have done your homework on this, while I have no apparent way of finding the answer: Why are print advertisements so much more expensive to buy than online advertising?

    I understand print advertisements cost more, but why? The content drawing “viewers” is the same. There is no link for additional information, they are just as easily “skipped”, and their effectiveness is completely unmeasurable. Being an news-industry outsider, I would think clickable ads reach as many eyeballs, are easier to get metrics on, and can even be of the full-page prior to article type (not that I’m a fan of those). Isn’t this a case of newspapers undervaluing the price of online ads? Once all hard-copy newspapers are history, won’t the money naturally migrate online?

  6. Keith Dick’s avatar

    Nicolas: I hope you mean only that *you* get to prefer making the payments via Paypal. There are a lot of people who have been badly burned by Paypal’s hard-to-believe policies over how they handle (or mishandle) the accounts. A micropayments system tied exclusively to Paypal probably will make a lot of early-adopters take a pass.

    As to the to main question, I have no idea how news will work in the future, but I am certain that we, as a society, will find a way to pay for things we value.

  7. Jon Garfunkel’s avatar

    Thanks for the link, Doc.
    What I called “PaperTrust” is a news-specific implementation of what folks are calling “Freemium.” Rather than make the actual news content the value-add for subscribers, there are other services that could be offered:

    1. Ads, if displayed at all, would be muted, and certainly not get in the way of your reading. (Salon’s approach)
    2. The default article layout would be single-page, not multi-page. The supposed research findings about users not like long content likely came from users encountering content that was too long in the first place.
    3. Automatic registration into news forums, free of moderation queue. If $250/year for the NYT to be delivered, I should get some digital bennies for that.

    Obviously, the research would have to be done as to how many e-subscribers this would convert. I don’t have that research. No doubt the NAA and news biz operations have done this sort of research. I was just trying to flush it out by giving it a name. It has been rather tiring to see apparently informed columnists like Lehigh and Carr not air any other ideas besides pay-for-content.

    Incidentally, I now remember our discussion around your post from 9/19/2007, Earth to Newspapers: Abandon Fort Business. That generated this effort on my part:

    http://civilities.net/TimesSelect – “The TimesSelect Reader”

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    In reverse order…

    Todd, thanks for sharing userlabor and apml. I was a little familiar with the latter but not with the former. Be patient while I get up to speed on both. Meanwhile I gotta say that, while advertising is something that’s back-burner at best with VRM, it’s front-burner for newspaper survival and therefor front-burner for the conversation at hand. Anyway, I’ll check it all out. Thanks for the help.

    Greg, I pretty much agree with everything you’re saying about both the hopelessness and responsibilities of the papers; but I still want to help in any way I canwhile there’s still hope. I also believe that hope and hopelessness differs by region. Out in Santa Barbara, where we also live, the city’s landmark newspaper and its owner are exceptional in the extreme. I can’t think of a single paper I would less like to save. It’s quite likely that, after every other paper in the country has dropped through the plumbing, this one will still be alive and kicking hard.

    Globe Reader, print ads bring more money than online ads because the market is willing to pay more. Simple as that. I also don’t think the money will migrate so much as it will be generated and spent by other methods, many of which we have not yet begun to imagine. As I’ve said elsewhere, the Internet is a whole new universe, and we’re a few minutes into the Big Bang. All we have are a lot of heat, a few light elements and no galaxies. “Web 2.0,” “social” whatever, Twitter, Facebook and even Google are early species in an ecosystem that has only begun to establish itself.

    John, I’m close to bagging my subscription to the Wall Street Journal. I’ve only stayed with it because I wanted to see where Murdoch & Company were taking it. While I like some of the directions (more op-eds from more angles, for example), the online environment remains as messy and aversive as all the rest of the papers. They also dangled the possibility that they’d drop the paywall. Instead it’s being praised as a model of something that “works.” Earth to other papers: it’s a pain in the ass. It also never remembers who I am. “We Don’t Recognize Your User Name or Password” it says right now. Again. For the Nth time. Feh. By the way, I’ve been a Journal subscriber for decades.

    Jon, thanks for the clarification, and for the thoughtful contribution, as always. Looking forward to more discussion around all of it.

  9. Mimi Hui’s avatar

    Uh oh, it sounds like you’re dealing with a lot of web properties that are not properly federated. I’m still blown away by the fact that after SSO (Single Sign On) has been available for so very many years, people still can’t seem to get the sucker to work properly so everyone can walk away cheery. Goodness! There’s a real gap between what is possible with technology and what non-techy folks have implemented. We need more people to bridge the gap. A large serving of OpenID anyone? :)

    I have to wonder if people are just pitching this the wrong way. I mean personally, I would consider paying _more_ not less to get things electronically. I travel a lot which means that I now have welts on my shoulders from lugging around so many books. We pay more for convenience for just about everything else out there (prepaid coffee cards? that’s basically just a loan to the issuer!). Perhaps consumers should also expect to pay for convenience when it comes to journalism.

    I know, I’m not quite sure that I could sell that idea either. But kind of fun to think about.

    Thanks for the articles Doc. Like I said, a new discovery for me, thanks to someone’s recommendation. But a very fun one indeed. Wish I were in town in May to participate in the mind meld but alas, I will be abroad. :/ I’ll be sure to follow as religiously as firewalls allow. :)

  10. vanderleun’s avatar

    “We’re suffering from a double whammy: A bad recession and a self-defeating business model.”

    Actually, it’s a triple whammy, but the scribes of the Globe never seem to get around to the 3rd: A long and unrelenting editorial slant designed to alienate and insult nearly half of their potential customer base.

    But that never seems to occur to these scribes. It’s always a bad time all around and the internet ate my revenue. The large blind spot in the center of the issue never, ever seems to occur to them.

    Earth to Globe: It’s not just the money and its not just the Internet. Deep down, it’s you.

  11. vanderleun’s avatar

    As for paychoice, well the smaller you make your customer base the fewer people you will have that choose to pay.

    If you’re looking to get money from micro, you’d best be about getting a large audience to ask, not just those people you find agreeable because they agree with you.

  12. Doc Searls’s avatar

    vanderleun, is 1.5+ million users too small a number for you?

  13. Jon Garfunkel’s avatar

    Doc — vanderleun’s jab is just standard VRWC playbook: the press is hopelessly liberal, and a supposedly right-center block of readers cannot stand to read opposing opinion, and thus circulation is fading, and only if newspapers could stop hiring liberal elites from Ivy League schools, they’d stop their slide.

    Bullocks. I’ll await to see some serious academic work correlating apparent bias with subscription loss. (I once saw a presentation at a semi-academic conference that asserted that the Globe was abandoning the “working class” through its news coverage and ads, but it wasn’t very scientific either.)

    FYI, Beth Lawton at NAA sent me a link last night to an analysis by Jeff Mignon on different revenue models.

    What would be nice to do (for you, CJR, or NAA) is to maintain a list of the news orgs that are trying alternative pay models, and encourage them to share as many numbers as possible. A commenter to this recent CJR article pointed out that INDenver Times (aka “Rocky II”) will be trying a variant of the freemium model. Free content, but paid conversations and paid everything else (see their FAQ explaining such). And whether or not this works, this *has to* get the support of the pressblogging elite (Jarvis, Rosen et al) because it follows from their rhetoric. When they say “news moves from a lecture to a conversation” what they mean is people value 2-way conversation more than 1-way news. The latter has become commodity. The former is a limited resource, and thus has economic value.

  14. Jim Bursch’s avatar

    Ad-supported media is corrupt and corrupting, and deserves to die as a business model.

    We have relied on marketing budgets to subsidize our media for too long, and it is time we kicked the habit.

    The current problem is that it is difficult for new models to emerge while big dieing trees block out the sunlight. Those trees need to die, fall down, and rot to provide nutrients for new growth.

    Meanwhile, those marketing budgets are still out there, representing demand for mindshare. The premise of MyMindshare is that those dollars can be used to buy mindshare directly from the source — you, me and every other human being with a functioning mind. Then, we can decide how those dollars should be spent; it could be on a six-pack of beer, or it could be for journalism.

  15. Nicolas Ward’s avatar

    @ Keith D.

    I don’t have a particularly strong attachment to Paypal, it just happens to be an account I already have, with which I’ve had a positive customer experience for both one-time purchases and recurring subscriptions/donations. As a preference, it’s one inspired entirely by laziness on my part :oD. I don’t know what else is in the micropayment space, but I’d very likely pick the service supported by the most sites, followed closely in priority by a service tied into a company with whom I already have an account (Google Checkout, Yahoo! Wallet, etc.).

    I think another thing that print publications who migrate online need to figure out is hyperlinking. Moving online is much more than just copy-and-pasting article text into a page layout with navigation links and ads. Maybe I’m asking papers to be too much like Wikipedia, but it’s very frustrating to read an article quoting an online source that doesn’t link to that source so I can do a deeper full-context read if I’m interested. Not really a revenue issue, I suppose.

    As for revenue, I’m always willing to pay a fair price for ad-free content, although as it is my brain has pretty much been trained to ignore online advertising unless it completely covers the content (and if your site does that, I probably won’t be back). I take it free now largely because that’s how it comes and that’s easiest; the same goes with using my DVR to skip commercials: it’s a personal time-saver. If it’s easy to authenticate my payment for content (iTunes and Amazon One-Click are both good examples of single-shop cases where impulse buys are all too easy), I’m there.

  16. Lee Wright’s avatar

    Interesting discussion, as always.

    Observations from someone who grew up in a two newspaper (a.m. and p.m.) household, has subscribed to the main city paper everywhere he’s lived, and who can’t imagine not opening two papers (the WSJ and now the Globe) every morning:

    - It’s helpful to understand whether a comment or conversation is about what we would like to have happen or what we think will likely emerge in the market and be sustained over the intermediate- to long-term.

    - Various technology-driven approaches that require a modification of consumer behavior will be suitable for the (relatively) small number of people who who choose to make the change. Some mass media properties will try them; others won’t. Whether they survive at all will be based on that competition and the resulting business models that each is able to establish. There is no reason to believe that all newspapers (really, traditional print mass media organizations) will choose the same model. And of course some niche print and online efforts will be supported by subscribers.

    - Little of the discussion around the fate of print mass media has reflected an understanding of the various value-creating components and the way in which they serve different audiences.

    In the case of newspapers, for example, there is less value than ever in the traditional physical, branded collection of journalists, editors, and advertisers.

    When a plane lands in the Hudson you want an an up-close view of what happened, you may find it in someone’s phone camera images posted on CNN. For a follow-up report on bird strikes and the response of manufacturers, airlines, and the FAA, the authoritative source may very well be someone who writes exclusively about the aviation industry for a niche site/pub. There is no value added by having, in this case, a Boston Globe reporter trying to cover all of that. They may, however, get the first interview with Boston-based passengers when they land at Logan, and the audience for that piece is much larger than the Globe.

    Aside from the editorial page, for online readers there is less of a connection between hard news sources and a masthead than ever before. (The NYT, WSJ, and a few other traditional print newspapers are probably also exceptions.)

    - Online, one wants to have a curated (by one editor or a crowd or a search utility) list of the news that’s of interest and an easy way to follow particular stories from the “best” source, which may or may not be from the source that broke the story.

    The ability to do that online with near-zero costs for the reader exposes the fact that the traditional print media business model has a cost structure that people no longer need to pay for. And with alternatives that many readers see as hard to distinguish, they see no reason to pay the premium.

    - Online advertising is a surprisingly elegant solution for paying for content creation, despite the distaste of some that such a grubby commercial venture as selling things should appear next to articles. After all, for many media companies that are publicly-held, the goal is to deliver target readers to advertisers. Compelling content is the way that’s done. Online advertising provides tremendous precision around this, with the ability to connect reader with advertiser in ways that heretofore weren’t possible.

    The fact that advertising rates are much lower online than in print is a function of competition among online content creators/publishers.

    Print rates will decrease further as the decision makers at traditional print buyers (advertisers and their agencies) continue to be replaced with younger individuals who have no ties (mentally, emotionally, or socially) to the traditional print media advertising infrastructure.

    - We will have fewer full-time traditional journalists in the future, just as we have fewer TV repairmen than we used to have.

    - And the role of technology in the evolution of the mass print media? As opposed to innovation on the payment side, broad, lasting impact will likely be in continuing to drive down the cost and increase the quality of the tools journalists (however defined) use to gather and publish news, the ones readers use to sift/sort/track and comment/share/rate, and the ones advertisers and publishers use to match message/offer with individual.

  17. Openworld’s avatar

    Here are some thoughts on how the Globe and other struggling papers can move towards financial sustainability…

    In addition to a comments section, the Globe could add a “related predictions” space by each article or column for readers to make cogent (Twitter-like lengths) forecasts of specific events related to the article that they see unfolding over a three or six month period.

    To make predictions, readers would pay a one-time or subscription fee to enter the pool, bringing needed revenues to the publication.

    The best predictors over time could earn karma points convertible to status or visibility. One reward option would be inclusion as a high profile guest columnist, after the precedents that Nicholas Kristof and others have set at the New York Times.

    Another reward option be to periodically include the best predictors in a “open forum” on trends in given fields, where they would be free to comment on trends and make further predictions.

    Such a newspaper/blog-sponsored prediction market system might also provide for cash prize, in which a share of the reveue stream could be given to local or global good causes of the best predictor’s choosing.

    Hope this helps – look forward to further thoughts on the approach.

    Mark Frazier
     Openworld.com
    @openworld (Twitter)

  18. rjh’s avatar

    So far the comments have not included a third reason for the failure of the Globe. When the Times purchased them, they gutted the reporting and editorial staff. I’ve never been a reader of the Globe, so I did not recognize the names he rattled off as having been lost during the takeover. But he is one of the paper readers who is dropping his subscription because the news content has become “thin pablum” to use his term.

  19. rjh’s avatar

    On previous comment a sentence got lost. The “he” is a neighbor and long term Globe reader.

  20. Doc Searls’s avatar

    The Times also took over the Santa Barbara News-Press (my other local paper) from the family that had run it for many decades. I don’t know what they did that was good or bad; but it could not have been worse than what they did by selling the paper to Wendy McCaw.

    There, as here, many fine journalists, each with irreplaceable knowledge of local places, figures and issues, were lost. Worse, their fine work is buried behind a paywall at a website that doesn’t even work (in my experience, anyway) for subscribers.

    I could go on, but it doesn’t matter. This morning I counted how many homes on our street get the Globe every morning. Just one: ours. I’m sure that 20 or 30 years ago, the Globe landed on nearly every doorstep.

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