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15 Dec


What would a newspaper have to look like to attract you as a paying reader?

December 15, 2012 | By |

interactive newspaper

Recently, friends and I were discussing the state of journalism and its potential futures. (As you do, right?) The occasion? German print newspapers are struggling, with a series of announced down-sizings and some newspapers in severe crisis.

It’s worth keeping in mind that while in the US the major newspaper crisis hit a few years back, accelerated by the fact that US newspapers rely even more heavily on advertising than the ones in Germany, here this has been delayed until fairly recently. So we watched from afar, and in theory at least there was more time to adapt to the new realities, if that’s something you can prepare for at all.

Now, in our small round we weren’t battling it out over facts and studies. In fact, I won’t present any studies or facts, but rather a series of thoughts, ideas and arguments that came up in the discussion. To put our arguments into context, one of my friends for some years has been an editor at taz (see the Wikipedia entry for some background), a Berlin-based left-leaning newspaper run as a co-op. In my work as a consultant and strategist, I pretty frequently worked with publishers and other media outlets. So we can make a few informed guesses at least.

Our guiding question was this: How would a newspaper have to present itself to become once more attractive enough for our peer group to spend money on it? In other words, what would a newspaper have to look like to attract you (or me) as a paying reader?

Print is ballast

No news here, really: In a daily newspaper, at least with my lifestyle that includes lots of travel and away-time, a print newspaper isn’t just pretty useless, it’s really in the way. I remember well the piles of mostly unread newspapers on tables, desks, sofas and on the floor. No more. I see no scenario in which I’d subscribe again to a print newspaper. Magazines might be a different beast altogether, although I currently haven’t subscribed to any print magazines either.

I do, however, pay for content of all sorts, like a Spotify subscription for music (which has largely replaced album purchases for me), movie theater tickets, the occasional movie download (for series mostly, and anywhere but iTunes if I have a chance), live concerts (less often than I’d like to), and occasional donations to the likes of Wikipedia and Brainpickings, to name just a few. I’m adding this because I think that the rumors of a “free for all” mentality on the web are hugely exaggerated. People are, to quite a degree, quite willing to pay for immaterial goods like downloads and access to information or entertainment.

Newspapers are as relevant as ever

I don’t think newspapers (print or online) have lost their relevance at all. Or rather, journalism hasn’t. Not all newspaper journalists do investigative work, sure. But also, I don’t believe that only investigative journalism should be financed. And I dimly remember a study that showed that the most-shared content on all the major social media channels still come from traditional media outlets. Sticking with my promise earlier to keep this post free of studies, I’m not going to link to it, though. (Hah! Take that!)

What about paywalls?

The New York Times has been very successful with the introduction of their paywall. (Very much against my prediction back in 2010, by the way – I was completely and utterly wrong). Others have been jumping on the same band wagon, some with more, some with less success. The times played that pretty nicely, and I’m still impressed by how well it all works, and manages to neither be very annoying nor to shut things down too much to still get enough readers.

First of all, I don’t think that many things done at the New York Times can be readily applied in many other places. The NYTimes is a special case in that it’s both global in its audience (theoretically at least), and hugely relevant beyond it’s core readership. It does have a massive and dedicated reader base, though, and one that’s willing to support the operation, too.

That said, taz has been testing what they call Paywahl, a pun combining paywall and Wahl, the German word for choice. The gist: “You can pay if you choose”. It’s a nudge to their readers – they can read for free, but a bit of cash would be appreciated.

I’m not familiar with how much taz is making there, but at a relatively small operation like taz, everything counts.

However, I am pretty convinced that those newspapers with clear unique value propositions will fare better than those in the middle of the road. Where the NYTimes has a huge editorial staff, investigative journalism and huge global relevance, taz has a clear (in this case left-leaning) political profile and strong opinion, and a small but strong local group of supporters. Any more generic, mainstreamed newspaper might have neither the relevance nor the emotional bonds to get that same kind of support.

Mix and match

How about newspapers collaborating to allow users to pull different parts of the news from different newspapers? Think international section from the NYTimes, economy from the Wall Street Journal, local news from your local newspaper, etc etc. Split the revenue accordingly.

Assuming that whenever you make readers’ or users’ lifes easier they’ll be willing to pay for it, this might be a pretty straight forward way to tap into new revenue sources.

Alternative revenue streams

We tried to think about other potential revenue streams. A few obvious ones:

  • A paywall, strict or less strict.
  • Apps & digital subscriptions: What’s a good price point for a digital subscription, on the web or in-app?
  • Allowing for donations like Brainpicker does?
  • An annual fundraiser like Wikipedia does?
  • Premium services: Hard to say what might work here and what would be awkward at best. Quick access? Access to the editors? Custom-tailored recommendations? A quarterly magazine? Art prints by supporting artists? Invitations to receptions and office parties? Schwag and merchandise?

It’s pretty obvious that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution and experimentation might be the only way to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

What about museums?

Museums have been trying to struggle with creating lasting relationships with visitors for a long time. However, they found a way of connecting with supporters I find quite convicing: Annual memberships that allow you free entry coupled with some extra services like quick or early access to exhibitions, invitations to receptions, meet & greets with the artists, etc. At the Tate Modern in London the base membership starts at 60 British Pounds (EUR 75), at the MoMA New York at 85 US Dollars (EUR65), which strikes me as a very, very modest fee. (Most museums these days have similar programs.)

In both cases, just a few visits would pay for the membership, and you get a few goodies thrown in, like skipping the annoyingly long lines at the MoMA. On top of the base membership, both museums offer several tiers of supporter memberships that include either different kinds of benefits (family, +1, etc) or simply allow you to provide more support to an institution you deem important to support. (The top-of-the-line membership offered on the MoMA website is 12.000$ per year.)

So this seems worth exploring, too: Why not offer a base membership that gives you basic access to what you need (in other words, a subscription) and offer supporter memberships on top of that for those who’d like to give a bit more? It can be done elegantly. In the peculiar case of taz, it’s not even that unusual, as the newspaper is being run as a co-op anyway, owned by its own staff and its readers. So we already know that in this case it’s a mental model that all stakeholders are familiar with. I’m sure the NYTimes could invoke equivalent models as well. It seems well worth exploring what else can be learned from museums in that regard.

Those were some of our thoughts. We live in interesting times. And while we should not dismiss the notion that we might have to think the unthinkable, maybe the transition doesn’t have to be as radically destructive?

Curious to hear your thoughts on this.


  1. The ‘mix and match’ is an approach which is being implemented now by Niiu in Berlin. They tried it with a paper version (and didn’t work obviously), now they’re on the digital track. I believe more in a Spotify-like model. But the once-a-year fundraiser model of Wikipedia makes sense as well, as it has a clearly stated goal for a short period. And the museum solution sounds like a “TAZ-plus”, with some extras for subscribers (workshops, presentations, discounts early access, you name it).

    What I miss here is an analysis of the value of content. How can you add value to content? How can you make your newsbrand much more part of my daily life? Make a Spotify app, curated by your music editors. Have your own Netflix channel. Start an opinion site, with regular real life panel discussions.

  2. Oh, right, excellent point. I had kind of assumed that the content would have to be great to begin with, otherwise any other efforts are doomed to fail. That said, I like the idea of personally curated recommendations by editors or other experts a lot. Or, as Alper Çugun pointed out on Twitter, there might also be value in brevity, like in digests etc.