Tag Archives: editor-in-chief

Media’s Future: Retail

(This is a copy of my weekly newspaper column, distributed by Loose Wire Service)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

As you no doubt know, Rupert Murdoch has decided to put up a front door on the The Times’ website, demanding a modest toll for reading the online content.

Needless to say this has prompted laughter among those who think that content should be free. This is silly: Someone needs to pay for this stuff at some point. And no one else has any better ideas right now, so good luck to them, I say.

Though I would counsel them to be smarter about the way they make folk pay. Demanding a credit card in the age of PayPal, as well as lots of other personal data is old wave. If you want to make light of the pay wall, make scaling it easy and simple.

(Disclosure: I worked, and occasionally work, for another Murdoch company, The Wall Street Journal.)

But what disappoints me elsewhere is the limited range of options being discussed. For most the question is: how do I charge for what we do? This is not the right question—or at least not the only question.

Think about it. We’re in the midst of some of the most exciting viral experiments in the history of the world. Twitter, Facebook, Ning, flickr are all evidence of the extraordinary effects  of high viral coefficients—in other words, the ability to expand users exponentially.

Now we know all about this, especially those loyal readers of this humble column.

But news organizations seem to ignore it.

They have readers. Lots of them. But the only thing that they can think of using that network for is to give them ads, or make ‘em pay.

A better question, then, is to ask: How can we make use of this network?

Well, one way to would be to sell them stuff.

Some news websites do this. The UK’s Guardian website offers books, CDs, gardening tools and holidays to its readers. Not that you’d necessarily know this to look at the website. The “readers offers” link is buried way down on the right hand side of the home page.

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In fact, I was surprised to find that the Guardian has a dozen self-contained mini websites, called verticals, that try to sell their readers stuff. From mortgages to hand trowels.

But I’m guessing this isn’t making a huge dent in the losses the company has been suffering. I couldn’t find anything in their annual report mentioning any of these websites or their contribution to the bottom line. (My apologies if I missed it.)

To me this is an opportunity lost.

Not least because the Guardian, as many English-language newspapers, are developing huge markets overseas. Of the main British newspapers, for example, more than half their traffic comes from overseas, according to Alexa data. For the Guardian, Telegraph, Times and Independent, a whopping two thirds of their readers are outside the UK.

The Guardian website has a quarter its readers from the U.S. For the Times it’s more than 30%. Even the Daily Mail, not known for its global view, has more than a third of its readers in the U.S.

These foreign-based readers are huge opportunities missed. Not for advertising, but for selling them stuff. After all, if people go there to read stuff, wouldn’t they also be interested in buying stuff?

There are signs that this is the case. The Guardian Bookshop, for example, delivers all over the world, and has more traffic from outside the UK (55%) than from within it, with the United States accounting for 17% of visitors.

But the actual volume of traffic is still tiny for these verticals, suggesting that they’re not really part of the Guardian vision of its future. Still, at least it’s trying. I couldn’t much except wine for sale on the Times’ homepage, and nothing on the Daily Mail’s.

To me it’s obvious that if you’ve got an audience you try to sell them stuff. Especially if you’re not charging them for what they are there to see. And ads aren’t filling the coffers. So somehow you’ve got to sell them something else. And if your audience is overseas then that’s a clue about what they might not be able to get where they’re accessing your site from.

Books is an obvious one. Food is another. More than 10% of Brits live overseas, so it’s fair to assume that a fair few of them miss their PG Tips and bangers. Indeed, there are dozens of websites catering to just that.

But of course it’s expensive. At one website I visited $20 worth of chutney will cost you $60 to ship to Singapore, for example. And many won’t ship to far-flung places that aren’t the U.S.

Which is where we come back to the network thing. Newspapers still don’t really understand that they have a readymade community in front of them—defined by what they want to read. So while I may not be willing to pay twice again to ship the chutney, I might be willing to split the shipping cost with others living nearby.

But whereas I may not be willing to take that risk with people I’ve met on eBay or a porn site, I might be more inclined to do so if they’re the kind of people who read the same paper as I. So it’s both common sense and good business sense for The Guardian, say, to leverage its existing network of readers and to use the data it has to make it easy for that community to make those kinds of connections.

The readers get their chutney at a reasonable cost, the paper gets a cut of the sale.

In short, a newspaper needs to think of itself as a shop. You may go in for one thing, but you may come out having bought something else. Indeed, online shops have already figured this out.

Take Net-a-porter for example. It’s a fashion clothing e-tailer, run by a woman who was a journalist and who wanted to be a magazine editor. Instead Natalie Massenet set up an online shop, but which is also a magazine.

A recent article (in The Guardian, ironically) quotes her as saying: “I hadn’t walked away from being editor-in-chief of a magazine – I’d just created a magazine for the 21st century instead, a hybrid between a store and a magazine that was delivered digitally.”

In other words, Net-a-porter goes at it the other way round: It’s a retailer that also informs. Newspapers could be informers who also retail. Of course fashion is relatively easy, and the road is littered with possible conflicts of interest. But probably fewer than the sponsored editorials we’re starting to see even among serious broadsheets.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to sell your readers something, if you feel that something reflects your brand and your commitment to quality. Indeed, your readers may thank you for it. The power of the network, after all, isn’t just about size: It’s about trust.

An Appeal For Help

Fans of Loose Wire may possibly recall a column I did a year or so ago, when I tried to match quaint English placenames with computer matters, assigning the names to things that didn’t yet have them. Here are a few:

  • chettle (collective n) The debris, such as crumbs, dead insects and lint, that gets stuck inside your computer keyboard.
  • hordle (v) The noise a modem makes when it is trying to connect to the Internet. As in: My modem isn’t working. I can’t hear it hordle.
  • whitnash (n) The pain in your shoulder at the end of a long laptop-carrying trip. As in: The trip went fine, but I’ve got serious whitnash and need a bubble bath.

I’ve taken the liberty of re-publishing the piece as part of a holiday season blitz, part of which is for purely selfish reasons. Frankly, I’ve been less than happy that these words have not, for the most part, entered mainstream usage, so I figured I needed to give them a boost. I have therefore submitted the above three to Harper Collins’ new Living Dictionary/Word Exchange project, where folk are encouraged to put in their own suggestions for entries.

Of course, that it was I who assigned these words their meanings may not make me exactly an objective chronicler of the language, but as the editor in chief of Collins Dictionaries, Jeremy Butterfield, points out in today’s Guardian, “Things change very quickly now.  Words can establish themselves within a month.”

So this is where you, o reader, come in. I’d like you to back my campaign by making your own submissions of any of the words (I’ve just done the above, but feel free to use any of the other ones) to the Word Exchange. You have to register first, but, trust me, it’s worth it. In exchange, you can tell your grandchildren you helped put Chettle on the map.

News: XP Has Made Everything Better. No, Really

 From the I Must Be Living in a Parallel Universe Dept,  I read with interest of PC Magazine announcement today that it has issued its “Annual Report Card on Service & Reliability Of Major Technology Companies” in which it says that ”consumers are more satisfied with the computer products and peripherals they’re using and the companies behind them this year than in 2002″. That seems unlikely, based on my experience and mailbag, but I did splutter some serious coffee when I read lower down their press release that “Overall, service and reliability has improved, due in large part to the effect of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows XP”. The release went on to say that ”Windows XP has brought computer users the stability of Microsoft’s corporate operating systems – Windows NT and 2000.” Editor in chief of the magazine, Michael Miller, is quoted as saying: “If an OS performs better, so does the hardware it controls.”
 
 
Well, yes, that’s true. But why do I keep having to reboot my XP preloaded notebook because it goes slower than my grandpa’s Vespa? And why do some minimized programs just flash away when I try to switch programs, as if it’s a Dirty Old Man’s convention? And why does the computer spontaneously reboot of its own accord, usually on Monday afternoons or when there’s a half moon? I may be in a minority around here, but my impression with XP is that it’s somewhat better than Windows 98, but it still gives me the shivers. The idea that somehow things are much, much better is just silly.