A new business model for newspapers: forget gadgets - think of articles as apps

I am tired of same old media headlines each time a new gadget comes out: "Is [insert new gadget] going to save old media/newspapers?" or "Is [insert new gadget] set to become a new business model for old media?". It should be clear to everyone that no new technology on its own will save the newspapers – what they need instead are smart models of delivery that cater to their customers first, then their shareholders. In the modern multi-gadget world, I don’t want to get all my news on a single gadget, such as the iPad, or from a single source, like Murdoch’s "tablet newspaper" The Daily. I want to be able read a range of news from a range of sources where and when I want, be it on my laptop, iPad, or in print. It shouldn't be 'either/or' but 'both/and'.

Making newspapers ever cheaper, like the 99-cent-a-week The Daily, also won't save the old media – this model has already played out to its natural conclusion. Just look at all the free newspapers on city metros or the many small local newspapers. They are certainly not the future of quality journalism: in fact, they are often neither quality nor real journalism.

What annoys me is that everyone appears to be waiting for a new gadget to save the media business model, but few seem to be working on an actual new model. Let's face it – to replace current, unsustainable, free access to online content, media corporations are presenting us with just two models, and neither of them are especially new: paid subscription for full online access or paid access to individual issues or articles (and unimaginative variations of the two).

I guess we all agree that free content cannot go on, as it doesn't generate enough money to pay for quality journalism. But it is facile to argue that we will eventually inevitably agree to pay for online newspaper subscriptions.

The main problem with both of the paid options points to a natural way to make the paid model work, but I have yet to read that someone is trying to make this happen. Again, with so many sources of news and different media, I don’t want to pay a lot of money to have access to just one media outlet. Why should I, in this day and age, pay for a full subscription to The Times or The New York Times online when I am only interested in their science sections? I don't want to support their sports sections – as far as I am concerned these may be a waste of paper and website space. Now let’s assume, for a minute, that the customer is always right (what an extraordinary idea!): it would make sense for The Times to offer me a cheaper subscription to select sections: science, medicine, the environment, politics, world news...

I don't want to read any specific newspaper; I want to read the best coverage there is out there on say, science, world news, and Croatia. So what do I do? Well I might get my world news fix from the International Herald Tribune, science from Science and Nature, and Croatia wherever I find it. As it happens, a lot of this I can get online for free now. If I were to pay for it according to current models, I would have to subscribe to a dozen or so newspapers/media outlets. I cannot afford that. So the only way to keep people like me as informed as I am now in the paid media environment is to allow me to get individual streams of news or even articles on individual topics from various outlets, a bit like an RSS feed.

I want to have access to many sources and be able to read them on whatever I want. I don't care much for a magazine custom-designed for iPad: I want to be able to read/see it through whatever medium I have access to at the time. Good reporting is good reporting, regardless of whether I read it online, in print, or on my mobile phone. And the new business model should support good reporting, but also readers' freedom to choose and access information from a variety of sources at affordable rates. Anything less would be going backwards in the evolution of media access.

I don't want to go back to being constrained to one or two newspapers. The 21st century opened up many possibilities and new horizons, and we don’t want them shut by some unimaginative 'business model'.

So instead of focusing on new gadgets and techno-fixes (think about it, not everyone gets their news from computers yet, let alone iPads) I would like to see more thought going into better ways of tailoring the delivery of news and quality journalism to the needs of the customers.

Think of it in terms of iPhone Apps. Why are they so successful? One reason is they are very cheap, say 99p per app, and you get continuing value out of them. You couldn't do the same with articles, because 99p would be too expensive for an article – usually articles are single-use, so if I were to spend that much on each article I read in a month, I'd need at least double my salary! And yet some journals and media outlets will have you pay up much more for a single article. This model is not sustainable either.

But assume we make a tiny change to it. You see an article you like and you want to read it. But hey, it's ten years in the future and the age of free media is over. And hey, it's in the newspaper, which you have no interest in subscribing to. The only alternative, they would have you believe, is to pay a few pounds/dollars to get that article (with a price that is probably higher than it should be, to make you think it's a better deal to subscribe to the entire newspaper, which is not something you want to do).

Well, instead of trying to swindle would-be readers/customers out of their money and going against their wishes, why not try and help them get what they want? Why not create a happy, returning customer?

Here's what I'm saying: If I can get an article about, say, a new flu vaccine, and I don't want full access to the newspaper that produced it, and I think paying 99p is too much for something I will read once and discard, why not offer me that article and any other article on this topic/keyword for the next month/year from this outlet included in that price?

Now suddenly, I am not paying for a one-off article, I am paying for longer term service, and I feel I am getting more value for my money. It also allows me to keep abreast of developments in the areas I am interested in. With my 99p, I buy not just an article but a series of subsequent updates on that topic.

Imagine the opportunities for the media – the more people you have subscribing to certain sections or topics, the more you could pay journalists that cover those beats. You get a dynamic and changing set of stats on what your readers want. Perhaps you charge more or less for popular topics, such as the WikiLeaks saga.

And for customers: a world of media outlets at your fingertips. You could get all your favourite topics from a variety of media from around the world. You get different perspectives, you don't rely on a single newspaper with a narrow ideological/political viewpoint, you get a sense of what others are saying about it as well.

And this doesn't have to restrict your options. If you get bored with a topic, you don't subscribe to it anymore. You could still browse all the headlines and if you suddenly feel like your interest in sports or arts or panda bears is growing you subscribe to those sections or keywords, or you keep adding new key words/topics to what you read.

You get a custom-made newspaper delivered to you every day, on whatever gadget you want. Perhaps you even print it all out and read it the old-fashioned way. But now you have quality, paid-for journalism from different newspapers on the topics you want, for the same price as you used to pay to subscribe to a single paper and without those boring sections you always used to skip. You become a citizen of the world, with access to quality reporting globally, without breaking the bank.

There's no one way of doing this, but what it requires is a change of thinking. It requires a shift in focus to providing the best possible service to customers. If they don't want to be loyal to your whole paper, that's fine – you just give them what they want and charge a fair amount for it. This could lead to healthy competition among media to get the best reporting on topics that people want to read. If someone is doing poor job of covering science, well fine, I’ll get my fix elsewhere – without the need to subscribe for full access to all of their content. It’s what the social media advertisers are moving towards: delivering targeted adverts to people that need certain goods at a time when they need them. This would see newspapers delivering targeted, individual articles that people want to read and allowing them to do so on whatever platform they want.

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