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January 19 2012

15:00

The newsonomics of signature content

What’s your signature content?

Quick: If somebody buttonholed you in an elevator, a school play, or a bar, and said, “Why should I pay you for that?” — what do you tell them?

Each passing week, it seems we’re further into the age of signature content. That only makes sense: If the death of distance is now old news, if everything is available everywhere at the touch of button or the swipe of a finger, then what makes any news or entertainment brand stand out amid this plague of plenty?

Closed systems — from three or four TV networks to less than a dozen big movie studios to a half-dozen major magazine publishers to geographically dominant newspapers — made signature content less important. Sure, big shows and big names have always driven media to some extent, but now, media without big names or big shows are going to get lost in the ether. Take Hulu’s announcement last week about Hulu Originals. You do have to wonder if Hulu’s fictional 13-episode “Battleground,” about a dysfunctional political campaign, will be bested by the Republican reality show in progress when the show debuts next month. Hulu is also bringing a Morgan Spurlock series for a second run, and probably will feature one other new program. The Hulu announcement joins Netflix’s own foray into signature content. Three years ago, would the thought of Netflix signing up Little Steven to do an original comedy series have crossed anyone’s imagination?

Hulu and Netflix both need to distinguish themselves in the market — not only from each other, but from Comcast, DirecTV, and Time Warner, among others. They need to buy protection as supposed masses consider cutting the cord on packaged services, Roku-ing and Apple-enabling Internet video onto their living-room screens. In movies and TV, we’re quickly morphing from a world of news and entertainment anywhere — get all of these things, somewhat haphazardly (Comcast Xfinity, for instance) on all of our devices — to one in which consumers ask, “What special do you have for me, in addition to my all access? Yes, All-Access, the cool feature of 2011, will quickly graduate from a wow to an expectation.

Why as consumers should we pay $7.99 (down from an initial $9.99) to Hulu Plus, when the same stuff (kinda sorta) is available through Boxee, or Apple TV, or Netflix, if I can find it? Why am I paying $7.99 a month (apparently the magic price of the moment) to Netflix for a catalog of films that is both voluminous and too often lacking what I want? Consumers are going to be asking that question a lot more.

Publishers, distributors, aggregators, and networks all want more money, and they’ve seen — courtesy of tablets and All-Access — that consumers are now more ready to pay for digital content than ever before.

Forget “content wants to be free.” Now content wants a fee. And everyone from Time Inc to The New York Times to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to Hulu’s co-owners (Fox, Disney, and Comcast) see gold. They see another digital revenue stream, in addition to advertising or to cable subscription fees. Yet they are increasingly believing they’ve got to up the ante (and Hulu is raising new funds to buy original programming) to compete and to win those consumer dollars.

News companies — at least one in ten U.S. daily newspapers and many consumer magazines — are rapidly embracing digital circulation revenue and All-Access. Yet results have been quite uneven. That makes sense: Consumers will pay for digital news, feature, and entertainment content, but they don’t want to overpay, and they’ll increasingly be forced to make choices. Buy this; let that go.

Let’s be clear. Paid media is paid media, and the original-programming pushes of the video companies have great meaning for news and magazine companies, global to local. For them, the calculus is similar. News and magazine brands can launch new products, though that’s out-of-their-DNA-tough for many. So they’ve focused primarily on sub-brands, many of which are people. These are the faces of news and magazines; many of these have become hot commodities over the last several years (“The newsonomics of journalistic star power“) as companies try to distinguish themselves — and give readers and viewers a reason to pick them out of the crowd.

How, though, can media companies afford to pay a premium for branded, promotable talent, talent that may open consumers’ pocketbooks? That’s easy: spend less on other content. So we’ve got the rise of user-generated content, obtainable free or cheap, and all kinds of new syndicate action from Demand Media to startup Ebyline (and maybe NewsRight), all trying to make it cheap and easy to get more medium- and higher-quality content more cheaply. What’s old is new again — as a young features editor, I got regular visits from syndicate and wire salesman, ranging from high-quality to the Copley News Service, that sold its stuff by the pound.

Another prominent model no news or magazine company can afford to ignore: The Huffington Post. Back to the early days when Betsy Morgan first teamed up with Arianna, HuffPost has worked this evolving content pyramid. At the top, a few highly paid site faces, many opinionated faces (some paid, most not), and then low-cost aggregation, much of it AP, headlined with the site’s recognizable swagger.

Then, of course, there’s the old standby: staff cutting. We’ve seen lots of staff cutting. In fact, these days, while we see some announcements like Media General’s big Tampa cut, most of the bloodletting is less public, but no less real. If you need to pay more to stars, and ad revenues are still declining, staff cuts of less than premium content (and those that produce it) make economic sense (“The newsonomics of the new news cost pyramid“). It’s the new news math.

These newsonomics of signature content are getting clearer. Netflix is planning to spend 5 percent of its expenses — or $100 million a year — on original, Netflix-defining content. Hulu is spending about a quarter what Netflix’s total, or $500 million in total, on all content licensing this year. We don’t know how much of that is for original content, but observers believe “Battleground” will cost $15-20 million for its 13 episodes. With its other forays, it will probably spend closer to 10 percent of its content budget on original content.

Curiously, many newspaper newsrooms constitute only 10-20 percent of the overall expenses of a daily newspaper company. So we’re starting to see some new, and old, arithmetic play out here.

Simply, Andy Forssell, Hulu’s SVP of content, explained the cost/benefit ratio to Variety: “…having an original scripted series that hasn’t been seen anywhere else yet is considered the best tool for standing out with either advertisers or viewers.”

As usual, we see the bifurcation of the bigger national brands — those with more audience to gain and more money to spend — and local news brands. While many local newspapers have cut to the bone, with too much of the tissue in the form of experienced, name-brand metro and sports columnists cajoled or drummed into “early retirement,” we see increased branding of stars at places like Time, The New York Times, Fox News, and ESPN. The sports network may be the classic business model of our age, and in its anchors and top analysts — many initially lured from daily newspapers — it has shown the way for many years now.

At the Times, consider business editor Larry Ingrassia’s build-up of business columnists, from veterans Gretchen Morgenson and Floyd Norris to new(er)bies Andrew Ross Sorkin, Brian Stelter, David Carr, Ron Lieber, and David Pogue. And the Times more recently picked up James Stewart from archrival Dow Jones.

At Fox News, Roger Ailes has cannily built the most successful cable news operation not on the interchangeable blondes that provide so much fodder for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but on O’Reilly and Hannity.

At NBC, the news franchise is so built around Brian Williams that his well received newsmagazine “Rock Center with Brian Williams” is synonymous with its host.

At Time Warner’s CNN and Time, we see the building of a worldly franchise on Fareed Zakaria’s clear-eyed, no-nonsense view of our times.

And then there’s the more local and regional press. Newspapers have long believed that it wasn’t any one or a half-dozen names that sold the paper. They’ve believed the news itself was the star, and the daily information report was the brand. That may be still be true of the Times, the Journal, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and a handful of other national/global news organizations — all of which have substantial, multi-hundred newsrooms that produce branded, unique products. It’s less true of regional and local dailies, many of which still present too much commoditized news in national, business, entertainment, and sports coverage, and have bid goodbye to many faces familiar to readers. Those that have retained familiar faces must do what they can to keep them; all need to recruiting more.

Then they may have a good answer to the question, in one form or another, consumers and advertisers will increasingly ask: What’s your signature content?

February 10 2011

15:00

The Newsonomics of overnight customers

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

It’s a new epidemic of digital-pricing strategery, to borrow a fading term, now breaking out within the newspaper executive suites of the western world. Rupert will soon be charging 99 cents a week for The Daily, and dozens of dailies are laying out digital payment plans to be put into effect this year. Some are hiring top-drawer consultants to parse the many possibilities and run the odds of success before they throw the dice.

The questions are many. Do I charge print subscribers anything extra for digital delivery? If so, how much? If I add a fee for print subscribers, is it opt-out or opt-in? Do I offer a day pass or week pass, or just stick with monthly and annual subscriptions? If I put up a wall, where do I place it? Do I restrict content access by type — allowing free access to classifieds, commerce, and commoditized national and global news, but keep the somewhat proprietary local stuff locked up? Do I let readers read some — maybe 10 or 20 pages a month — of their choosing before making them pay to go further? How many bundles should I offer, and what’s in them?

We’re in uncharted territory. We know very little about consumer behavior when it comes to paying for journalism because the old, steady, entrenched models worked so well for so long that they barely changed over decades. Then the Internet came along and publishers felt compelled to give away their work for free — a subject to be featured in many psychology dissertations to come — as they abandoned, for a 15-year period it appears, a two-legged (advertising + circulation) business model.

A year from now we’ll have lots of data, parsed by all of us every which way from London to New York to Memphis and Augusta to Dallas to San Jose and Modesto, and then we’ll see what works, what doesn’t, and indeed, what “works” means in dollars (and pounds) and cents.

For now, though, the paid plans consist of commonsense, conjecture, conventional wisdom, consultant graphs, and, I believe, some fascinating assumptions about human psychology. On the eve of the launches of more paid offers, let’s examine four of those assumptions underlying this new era.

Let’s call it the newsonomics of overnight customers, which is our first psychological model, and one that I think may turn out to be the most promising.

Our four psychologies:

The psychology of the overnight customer

In north Texas, if you’re a Dallas Morning News subscriber, you’ll wake up sometime after March 1 (the loose date for the debut of the company’s digital paywall), and find that you no longer have a split identity. Though for 15 years you’ve been a “subscriber” for print and a “user” for online, you’re now just a customer. You pay your $30 or $33.95 (the new price as of Jan. 1) a month, and you get seven days of the Morning News and access to the Morning News’ new digital bundle, consisting of desktop/laptop, smartphone, and tablet availability.

That’s right. You’re no longer a “user”, a hateful term if ever one were invented, or a “visitor,” or a brother from another digital planet. Overnight, you’re a customer again.

In this psychology, a news company has put a value on what it produces. You, the customer, now are being shown that value. Maybe a year, or two, or three, from now, you perceive that value — forgetting all about those days of “free” — and value your relationship to the Morning News’ news, whether you access it by paper, phone, tablet, or TV screen.

The big hope: When you are ready to forsake pulp itself, you’re accustomed to paying for digital — you’re a customer of all, clearly — and do so without thinking twice. (And if the Morning News can save big bucks on not having to print and deliver a paper to you, and tens of thousands of your neighbors, it can significantly cut costs, increase profits, and maybe grow its news-gathering capability.)

We expect that after The New York Times’ finishes its own (higher-priced) pricing strategy, it, too, will offer print subscribers digital access as part of the coming “All-Access” bundles. Journalism Online says that about half of its newspaper clients will offer print subscribers no-extra-charge access to digital, while the rest will tack a small upcharge onto print bills.

This psychology, I believe, offers elements of a winning one. Why? It begins to change the artificial split between print and digital consumption. Most likely, it slows down — only temporarily, but every year makes a huge financial difference to news companies — print loss. Bundle it all together — print + digital — and there’s less incentive to drop print, even your use is declining. Less loss in the short-term helps retain print ad revenue, which is still 80 percent or more of all newspaper company ad revenue.

Secondly, it sets up publishers for the hastening print-to-tablet transition. If the kind-of-print-like tablet convinces readers to move away from print more quickly, the more they’ve been accustomed to paying for tablet digital, the less likely they are to balk at paying just for tablet digital.

Journalism Online cofounder Steve Brill will tell you that the company still urges publishers to charge something extra for digital access, even a $1.95 or $3.95 a month, often a 60 percent or more discount compared to what digital-only bundle buyers will pay. Whether you ask print subscribers to pay a small amount for digital access or give them access “free” as part of their print subscription (they still have to register for the restricted access even if no new payment is involved), they’re as likely to sign up for digital access, he says. If that holds, a small, incremental price itself may not be that much of an issue with print subscribers. Those that want it are as likely to pay for it as take it for “free,” as a new digital customer. It’s a way too early to know if that will be the case, but it’s one metric that should be at the top of publishers’ watch lists.

One way or the other, though, print customers are becoming digital customers, quickly. One key lesson here: It is newspapers’ print subscribers and regular readers who should be the likeliest to maintain their loyalty (and show the most willingness to pay of all potential audiences). In a sense, this is a back-to-the-future scenario, redrawing that big “circulation” circle as it was, but now including digital access.

The Forrest Gump psychology

Is a news site just a bunch of chocolates? If so, how important is it to allow would-be news customers to sample the wares before making them open their wallets? If you let them sample, can they sample all the treats, or just half the box — and which half?

Morris Communications’ Augusta Chronicle, partnered with Journalism Online’s Press+, now gives readers 25 pageviews a month before the paywall comes down, giving them access to the whole site. Dallas Morning News digital readers will find that most local stories — other than widely covered local news — have a small “D” symbol, indicating restricted access content that only print or digital subscribers can get access to. In Memphis, the current plan of Scripps’ Commercial Appeal is to start charging in the second quarter, but only for mobile access, while the website itself remains free.

Sampling is a big question. Print subscribers, who tend to be older, know what they are getting, while less habituated readers, who tend to be younger, may need to develop a habit. If sampling of the key, unique, proprietary stuff is made difficult, then how likely are news sites’ to develop a next generation of paying readers?

The psychology of the maze

So what happens when digital visitors bump into paywalls? Remember TimesSelect, and how disorienting that seemed to be to many. It makes people anxious to bump into a wall. Publishers hope that those who bump into walls (after 10-20 pageviews a month), and don’t pay, will come back the next month, and be more likely to pay then. Michael Romaner, head of Morris Digital, which has rolled out an Augusta-like model in Lubbock and plans six more similar rollouts by July 1 (and the rest of the company’s titles by the end of the year), says early data shows that 25 percent of those who ran into the wall paid up. Again, that’s very early data. Let’s see if that 25 percent number holds in Augusta and elsewhere, and what the tracking of the 75 percent — how many go away and never come back? — shows. How many just keep sampling, and are ad-monetized, but never fork over circulation dollars?

The psychology of the psych-out

Maybe news companies are overthinking all of this. Maybe they’ve psyched themselves into believing the world of free news content has really and profoundly changed — with little supporting evidence, other than a number of one-time news apps sales. It’s true that the metered systems, pioneered by the Financial Times and at the core of The New York Times’ and Journalism Online’s models, aren’t bet-the-company strategies. They are designed to keep the engine of growing digital ad revenue humming, allowing 80 percent or more of digital customers go on their merry non-paid ways, while turning those heavier digital readers into digital customers. If they succeed, they’ve picked up a new digital revenue stream, maybe laid down the first pavement to tablet utopia, and maintained a commitment to a digital ad future. All that combined may be just a middling success in revenue, though, as print (see both recent McClatchy and Gannett reports) ad revenues remain stubbornly negative.

If they fail — and that means losing more traffic due to paywalls than they anticipate — then news publishers have once again too strongly believed their own conventional wisdom and will pay the additional consequences.

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