Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Oliver Holt, Twitter and why newspapers are #fucked

Oliver Holt the Daily Mirror's chief football correspondent told an interesting anecdote on Sunday Supplement a few weeks ago.  He was asked by the show's host, Brian Woolnough, whether he'd seen the dispute between Carlos Tevez and Roberto Mancini while he was covering Manchester City's game with Bayern Munich.

Holt replied that because of the position of the Press box he hadn't, and the first he knew about it was when he started receiving texts and Tweets from people watching the game on TV, it's a story which pretty much sums up the problems newspapers are facing in today's multi-media world.

Here was a guy who was writing a report for a newspaper which wouldn't hit the shops for about another eight hours finding out about the game’s top line from people watching the match live on TV via a social networking site accessible to all.

Just like with the telly, sport is hugely popular on Twitter.  Of the top 10 events measured by tweets per second four are sports-related.  Last summer's women’s World Cup final broke the record with a peak of 7,196 although thankfully the Twitterverse has since shown its intellectual depth as that record was in turn broken when Beyonce announced she was pregnant in August.

Barton sends another Tweet
Now there are loads of footballers tweeting all sorts of shite with no brow-beaten PR on hand to say: “Joey, I don’t think that’s such a good idea”.  So, you’d think that in many ways Twitter would be a boon for the archetypal lazy hack ready to pick up all these juicy quotes and turn them into a ‘story’ without having the hassle of actually leaving the newsroom.

But it doesn’t quite work that way.  Whatever the hacks see, we see too.  So when Yossi Benayoun tweets that he’s joining Arsenal on transfer deadline day we all know about it before Jim White gets to self-implode over the news on Sky Sports; when Darren Bent tweets that his mother has been racially abused we all know about it before it gets into the papers and when Robbie Savage tweets, well pretty much anything, we can all collectively think #whatatwat.

In a sense your timeline is like a personalised radio phone-in show. You, not a producer, decide who you listen to or what discussion you follow and thankfully there’s no need to hear to that sanctimonious arsewipe Alan Green.

It works the other way too.  Players used to find it much easier to manage their own images but as we saw last season they can’t do that any more, even with the help of the law courts.  Ryan Giggs successfully got an order stopping the papers and TV from telling us that his carefully crafted family-man image hid the fact he was just another tiresome shagabout footballer, but that didn’t stop the news trending on Twitter.

And this is the problem for newspaper executives: their business model is fucked.  OK, papers aren’t quite on their death bed just yet but after 150 years or so of dominance they’re in a care home and they’re not getting many visitors.

The invention of the steam press in the mid-1800s allowed for the production of newsprint on an industrial scale and the creation of national rail networks presented a way of widely distributing the product.  It’s quaint to think of a printing press and a steam train as ground-breaking but in their time they proved as revolutionary as the invention of Twitter or the iPod because they allowed for the creation of a fantastic device - the iPaper.

It was lightweight, portable, cheap and disposable and, for a good few hundred years at least, it was the fastest way to receive the news.  It was so versatile you could even eat fish and chips off it (try doing that with your iPad and see if it still lets you play Angry Birds).  Hell, there was even an app which would download the latest version of the iPaper direct to your house while you slept, it was called PaperBoy.

This in turn gave rise to a new business model; large circulation newspapers attracted advertisers and became dependent on advertising revenue.  For a while everyone was happy; consumers got cheap news; advertisers reached a large audience and newspapers could afford the high overheads (such as expensive printing presses and large teams of journalists) while keeping the cover price down and staying relatively profitable.

Thanks to an improved education system and increasing adult literacy this three-way relationship reached its peak in the Fifties.  Then along came commercial television to poop the party.

Suddenly there was a new device on the market which was more easily accessible (it was always in your house) and from which you could download content for free just by pressing a button (although back then you actually had to get off the sofa to press that button).  For sure, to begin with the new device was quite costly and even now there’s a monthly subscription to fund channels no one watches but crucially there was a new place advertisers could sell their wares to a much larger audience.  For newspapers the long, slow walk to the care home had begun.

Confronted with this situation newspaper companies have been making the same fundamental mistake for years. They worry about putting stuff online before a paper is printed, because they believe their readers are paying for the product (the content) but they never have been: they were paying for the service which allows them to access that content.

In the old days the only way they could do that was by downloading the iPaper through the PaperBoy or LocalShop apps. OK, there was an element of choice - do I download the iPaper produced by Rupert Murdoch or Robert Maxwell? - but that was it.

Readers paid a premium for the service as only a few people had the capital and therefore the means of production - such as the ability to pay journalists (and let’s not forget it’s not just writers who are journalists) and maintain printing presses - to produce the iPaper.

This in turn created a situation where newspaper companies were able to determine what news was downloaded and they were able to do this for so long they are still kidding themselves that that's what readers were paying for and that that's the foundation of their business model. Yet that model was always based on advertising revenue - the real value was in monetising the service they were providing, not monetising the content.

So, the nature of 'primary consumption' has changed; newspaper companies are no longer in position to dictate what people read, the decision is being made by the consumer themselves because the choice has grown exponentially. You can personalise your RSS feed to download the stories that interest you or sign up to Blogs so the latest post goes straight to you inbox when it’s published - the list goes on.

It's even more the case now that you can buy a laptop for under £200 when you’re doing your weekly shop at Tesco (note: other supermarkets are available) and once you’re back at home you can access Twitter, Diggit, Blogger and a host of other social media for free.

And the nature of secondary consumption has also changed. In the old days that would mean going to a library archive or borrowing your neighbour’s copy of an iPaper or simply sharing stories by word of mouth. Now if I like something I can ‘like’ it on Facebook or Twitter and immediately share it with all my thousands of followers. (I say thousands I mean hundreds. OK, tens.) Now, often the best part of reading a story online is the comments it generates, or to put it another way; content produced by readers not the journalist. The line between 'producer' and 'consumer' is becoming increasingly blurred.

I guess we have the late Steve Jobs and his chums at Apple to thank for this monumental shift from the physical to the digital. Can you remember back to the Dark Ages when taking your whole music collection with you when you went for a jog meant you’d have to strap some shelving to your back and hope you didn’t spill your CDs all over the road?  Now you can shove literally thousands of songs in your pocket.

iTunes has created a huge change in the music industry. It used to be the case that radio stations (and then MTV) in cahoots with record companies pretty much determined what was in the charts.  Just like at a general election we chumps merely thought we were in control. Now you can just download the tracks you want and, much to the chagrin of some artists this has almost killed the album.

Equally, back then you could only buy what the music companies actually produced, if the record, tape or CD  (remember any of them) wasn’t made, well, you weren’t gonna buy it, let alone play it. Now, however we can pretty much download whatever the hell we like without having to wait for a small child in a factory in Cambodia to produce something tangible. Then there’s Spotify; don’t mind the adverts every so often?  Cool, then you can get the music you want for free.

This ‘freemium’ business model is used by publications such as the Metro newspaper and Shortlist magazine.  Those companies have recognised there is little value in the content (just like Spotify, the product is free to the consumer) instead they make their money by charging advertisers for using their device as a means of reaching a wide audience.

This general trend is happening in almost every area of media consumption. In the books market the rise of the Kindle is slowly changing how we access literature and earlier this year Warner Brothers showcased their Digital Everywhere app which will allow you access any film you’ve bought via any internet-enabled device.

The iPaper... yesterday's news TODAY!
And then there's my old chum TV.  The central thrust of both Virgin and Sky’s current advertising campaigns is not the content (they pretty much offer the same thing) it’s what you can do with their hardware.  So Virgin have that bloke off Hustle telling you how to make sure your other half won’t throw you out for deleting all the TOWIE episodes she's saved, while for Sky there’s Victoria Wood telling you how you can still access the service when you’re not at home. In short, you can watch what you want, when you want, where you want.

In under a decade, iTunes and the iPod have transformed how we interact with media. We are  now used to devices which are compact and portable and we demand access to a huge range of content which allows us to create a personalised experience. So, in short, we want pretty much everything newspapers don’t provide.

And this is the third mistake newspaper companies are making; they seem to operate in a hermetically-sealed world where they continue to believe that their only competition is other newspapers.

This is the thinking behind the infamous News International paywall experiment. From July last year Murdoch websites became subscription-only services. Look at the figures and you'll see there hasn't been a great take up; according to a Nielsen study before the paywall went up The Times and Sunday Times had three millions unique visitors a month.

After the free trial began that dropped to 1.7m and only 20% of those paid to go behind the paywall. News International takes the view that if all publishers erect a paywall that’s the problem solved as the consumer will be forced to pay. But why would you pay when you can get the same stuff (and much more besides) for free elsewhere? Think about it; just logging off Hotmail gives you a list of the latest headlines.

If anything, unless you provide genuine niche content (I for one would pay for the excellent statto.com) the battle to charge for on the tinterweb has long since been lost - there has never been a culture of paying to access content online, so we're not going to start now. The right time to erect a paywall was over a decade ago, just when newspaper publishers were dismissing the tinterweb as a passing fad.

Traditional publishers need to accept that there is limited value in content and the real value lies in the service they provide which enables consumer to access that content. Think about it, even when newspapers were The Daddy the bulk of revenue came from advertising, not the cover price (ie the content).

The future lies not in flogging a dead horse but  in finding the value in new devices as users come to accept there is a price worth paying for accessing content in the way they want.

At the end of the day, the biggest threat to a dying dinosaur is not another dying dinosaur, it's a more voracious predator - like one of those velociraptors which can open a kitchen door while you're cowering behind a cupboard

Talking of dinosaurs, that leads us back to the Sunday Supplement.

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