Thursday, June 17, 2010

Report holds a clue to why paywalls will fail newspapers

This is a follow-up to the earlier post about the recently released report, The Evolution of News and the Internet. (The full report can be downloaded as a PDF here.)

If you just skimmed the recently released report about newspaper circulation declines released by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), you might conclude that while newspaper circulation levels are declining the move to online reading may compensate.

But a couple of survey results do not bode well for traditional newspaper publishers:

The real concern however is that a significant proportion of young people are not reading conventional news at all, or irregularly. Research undertaken in the United Kingdom also shows that, although young people demonstrate an apparent ease and familiarity with computers, they rely heavily on search engines, view rather than read and sometimes do not possess the critical skills to assess the information they find on the web.
Young people who consume news in the fashion described above would not have been good print newspaper customers in any era. Ten or twenty years ago, those who were light and infrequent news readers would have not been considered good candidates for subscribing to a newspaper -- why should they be considered prospects now?

But newspapers might actually find that for the first time ever these customers can be reached. Newspaper websites, if properly designed and populated, can reach these readers by providing content that will find these customers through search engines, aggregators, and the like.
In terms of time spent, Internet users report a large increase in reading online newspapers, but most online readership is more ad hoc, irregular and sporadic than print newspaper readership used to be. The way news is consumed is also radically different on line. Online news readers get a variety of news from different sources, allowing them to mix and compile their own personalised information.

If you want to reach these potential customers you need to design products that will reach them. It is probably not possible to try and attract both customer profiles -- the fully engaged news reader, and the hunt and peck news reader.

For many newspaper editors (and publishers) it seems to me that whether they know it or not, they have already made a decision to abandon these (generally) younger readers. I don't blame editors for this decision, any good editor is supposed to know who their target audience is and deliver content appropriately.

But publishers are blow it -- allowing their staffs to create a one-sized fits all product in this era of media fragmentation is a move guaranteed to lead to smaller and smaller audiences. Bragging about higher uniques and pageviews will not mask the fact that bounce rates are higher and engagement is declining.

Further, unless you are the Times or WSJ, the traditional news website might not, in the end, be the best product to create online if your goal is a large audience.

I'm obviously not a big fan of what the majority of newspapers are doing online -- trying to compete with Google by designing their websites more like their print products than what their competition is doing online. Further, I'm not sure most publishers even know the proper questions to ask, let alone the answers.  Are their web products trying to attract web users? or are they trying to replace an old print product? I get a sense that they are trying to do both when that may be impossible.