A Newspaper for the Web

June 5th, 2012

Newspapers exist to inform readers about the news, about what’s going on in the world. That’s why we read them. After all, they are called newspapers, right?


Well, sort of. And yes, in the past—the distant past—that was the case. But newspapers are no longer where people learn breaking news. There’s a very abundant supply of news. We can find out what’s going on from television, the radio and the web, and we’re already paying for those mediums. If all we want from “newspapers” (organizations which find news and report on it primarily using text) is to find out what’s going on, they have no reason for existing. Other mediums do that quicker and they do so at no additional cost.

The web both made that purpose redundant through an abundance of sources and undermined their business model by making distribution (comparatively) free. Producing a newspaper meant incurring very substantial costs, which meant charging a price for it, and therefore it was very easy to place a margin on top of cost. If someone wanted to read the day’s news, they had little choice but to purchase a newspaper. Newspapers were able to charge subscribers and advertisers (classifieds, businesses) because distribution was limited. For advertisers, then, the way to reach a mass audience was through newspapers. On the web, though, distribution is free, and places to advertise and ad space is almost unlimited, so sources for news abound, the price for it dropped all the way to zero, and the value of adverts plummeted, too.

I don’t think, though, that reading the day’s headlines was the newspaper’s only purpose. If that were the case, headlines with very small stories would be sufficient. The newspaper was a powerful medium because they could be a deep window into the world. They provided readers with a clear understanding of what’s going on in the world that’s worth knowing, meaningful insight to what’s important about each of those headlines, and the opportunity to learn about topics readers never would have sought out themselves. Coverage, insight, serendipity. All in one place, consistently.

Coincidentally, news on the web has a huge problem: the abundant supply (which eroded the newspaper’s business model) creates an overwhelming amount of noise. The web is very good for finding out what’s happening, but it’s an endless stream of news, never ending, never relenting, with little context. The web is good at breadth, but very bad at depth. There’s specks of gold scattered throughout, occasionally nuggets, but we have to search for them ourselves or rely on others to tell us. It’s easy to get lost in the stream.

That’s an opportunity. One that, if they’re willing to, newspaper-like organizations are particularly well-prepared to take advantage of.

Here’s what I envision.

A Newspaper For the Web

Here’s what it’s not:

  • This won’t save newspapers burdened by huge production, distribution and administration costs. That’s over. That’s been over.
  • This won’t re-create mass, paying audiences and expensive advertising rates for that audience. That’s over. That’s been over.
  • This won’t allow the newspaper industry to regain its former size. That’s over. That’s been over.

Here’s what it is: an organization whose goal is to be the only place readers need to go to find out what’s going on that’s important (coverage) and what’s meaningful about news events and relevant issues (insight and context). Go deep on certain subjects (politics, technology, sports) and make their writing on it so good that anyone interested in the subject has no choice but to read it. Embrace the web, rather than resist it. General-interest articles are freely available, and verticals are gated but open to links. Publish links to terrific pieces from other sources, and do so as prominently as they do their original content.

Here’s the business model: rather than target a mass audience with advertisements and augment it with subscriptions, target audiences passionate about certain subjects with reasonable subscriptions and augment with advertising to mass audiences. Provide everyone with a collection of original reporting, in-depth reporting on topical issues, and links to must-read pieces from other sources that, together, provide coverage of news and insight into its meaning. Use the general-interest content, which is completely open to share, to build readership and funnel people toward the verticals. Allow subscribers to share articles.

Newspapers—by which I mean organizations which do original reporting on the news primarily through text, whether print or digital—cannot compete with cable news channels and websites at reporting breaking news. They try, but there’s no real advantage for them to do so. So they shouldn’t. The newspaper’s value is in explaining a story in detail, rather than the bare headline, and putting it in a context. It’s also in choosing what to report and write about. By only including what they believe is important and worth knowing about, they make it manageable for readers to comprehend the totality of a day’s news.

The newspaper’s value, then, is by slowing down when everything else has sped up. The web has a nearly unlimited number of sources publishing new news every second, and the result is that there is no understanding. We scan what’s new, move on to what’s then new after that, but we don’t stop and consider what any one event means. The newspaper solves that. It turns the torrential stream into a regular, daily update of what’s new in a realistic portion. There’s a finite amount of articles within each day’s edition, and because we know there’s an end, we can take the time to actually read and digest each article. The newspaper is a sort of daily review where you can take some time, relax and consider events. That’s incredibly powerful. It’s a sort of counterbalance to the web’s always-on, always-new, always-moving nature.

Newspapers have tended to focus on general-interest topics, with a few exceptions. I don’t think that should be true for this new incarnation. One of the web’s best attributes is that it allows people with similar interests to find each other. This also means it’s much easier to sustain publications on specific subjects that appeal to people who’re obsessed with it. In fact, this can be even more successful than appealing to a larger, mainstream audience because people who really care about a subject also care about publications doing a great job writing about their passion. They seek out those publications and they read them often.

They should go deep on specific subjects and make their publication indispensable to people passionate about it. There’s a remarkable lack of good subject-specific writing from large newspapers precisely because they are trying to target a larger audience. Think about it—for technology or science, the New York Times or Washington Post probably are not the first places you go. You might head to the Verge, Daring Fireball or other weblog-like websites before you head there for technology coverage. Those papers may break stories, but despite having excellent writers, they are responsible for much less insight into what’s going on in the industry than these tiny websites are.

Even for politics and international events—one of the New York Times’ main focuses—you might choose to head to the Atlantic or Politico first. That’s no accident; these publications are still in the breaking news business, rather than in the insight business. There’s no reason for that to be the case and, if they want to thrive over the next decade, I believe that needs to change. Why shouldn’t the Times have the best politics section in the business, the section that everyone in Washington has to read and goes to first? Why shouldn’t they have a fantastic technology section that doesn’t just report on the business landscape, but analyzes what’s going on so well that we all have to read it?

Along with quality reporting on events that tells me what’s important about the day’s news, I want to read cutting analysis about what companies like SpaceX and Nest are doing, what their visions are, and what that means. I want to read about how computing is rapidly shifting from the PC to mobile, touch devices to wearable computing to computers in everything. I want to read about how software is evolving on tablets and whether it’s making tablets (okay, the iPad) into a capable computer of its own. I want to read about what’s happening in biotechnology, what these companies are trying to achieve, and what that might mean.

This new paper, too, should embrace what’s powerful about the web. The web has an incredible assortment of great people doing wonderful writing on all subjects, and they should not be afraid of prominently linking to them when they find something that’s too good not to read. In fact, that should be one of their key functions—combing the web and finding the nuggets of gold that are worth reading and sending their readers to it, even if it’s a competitor. By doing so, they will create more value for their readers, and they’ll keep coming back, because they know it’s a place where they can be turned on to other great articles without doing the manual work of finding it themselves. They’ll trust the paper, because the paper respects them enough to send them away to other people’s work that’s worth reading.

Articles shouldn’t be hidden behind a pay wall, either. While doing so may push people to subscribe, I believe it actually undermines any subscriptions offered because it’s locked up. People don’t just want to read something, they want to share it. They want to email it, post it to Facebook and Twitter, or save it to Instapaper for later. When they come across something they love, they want to show it to other people and talk about it. When only they can see it, because only they subscribe, that’s impossible, and so they’re not going to subscribe. And that’s like hobbling yourself before a marathon, too, because when dedicated readers share your articles, they’re giving you the best kind of promotion—a genuine recommendation.

So general-interest articles should be absolutely open. I think the deep subject sections, though, should require a subscription, and should be behind a gate—but a very easy one to climb through. All articles won’t be accessible through the website or app, but can be read via a link with no limit. This means that to read it every day and read everything (as many people will want to do, if the writing is excellent), a subscription will be required, but subscribers will be able to share whatever they please, and other websites will have no issue linking to those articles. This isn’t so much a gate as a nudge to readers to subscribe.

This is sort of a reversal of the traditional newspaper business model, which is to charge a modest price for a subscription and make the majority of revenue through advertising from a mass audience. Rather, I think they should focus on reasonable subscriptions for excellent reporting and analysis on very specific subjects (technology, politics, science, international affairs, etc) that people in the field or passionate about it have to read, and using their general-interest reporting to build a readership, sell tasteful advertising that augments their subscription revenue, and exposes people to their really good subject writIng.1

So that’s what I think newspapers should be: digital-only publications which give readers a slower, deeper and more insightful understanding of what’s going on, and provide the best writing on specific subjects around. And charge for it.

The New York Times

I want to write a bit about the New York Times because I believe that, of all newspaper or newspaper-like companies, they’re the closest to doing what I describe. Their original reporting is excellent—they do a very good job of diving into stories and into topical issues, better than everyone else by a significant margin—and they create meaning by limiting what they report on, too. Their iPad application is very, very good for browsing stories and reading them for extended periods, and feels much more like a newspaper than an application. It’s almost entirely content, headlines, text, images and video, and that’s a very good thing. Their pay wall, while overly restrictive, is also quite original and close to what I describe; it allows people to read a certain amount of articles for free each month and it is relatively transparent to incoming links from Google, Twitter and Facebook.

The Times, though, is still heavily targeted at a mass audience. They want regular readers to subscribe, and those subscriptions are very expensive. I believe this is a tremendous opportunity they’re missing. The Times has incredibly gifted journalists and resources, so there’s no reason they couldn’t make a “Times Politics” sub-publication and charge subscriptions for it. They have the talent and resources to turn something like that into a daily must-read for people in Washington and people obsessed with politics.

I think that’s what they should do. They can continue trying to get regular people to subscribe, too, but those subscriptions should be much cheaper—closer to $5 per month rather than $35, which it is currently. This should go along with sub-publications which charge more premium subscriptions but make it worth it for those interested.

If any of the old publications are going to succeed in the next decade, it’s going to be the Times. They have the reputation, the talent and, most important, the inclination to do things in a way that’s best for their readers. Their iOS applications show that. But they are being held back, I think, by the physical newspaper and distribution they are tied to, and by an odd cautiousness toward their new digital medium. They’ve done a terrific job with the iPad application, but they need to explore this new medium and embrace what’s good about it, rather than simply try to port the newspaper to the digital medium and wall off their content to subscribers. They’ve gone about half-way, I think, and done a very good job, but they need to embrace it and run with it. Don’t just put a foot in the pool and test the waters. Jump in and make waves.

Rather than treat their print business as a key part of their business, and try to make sure that their digital business doesn’t undermine it, I believe they need to undermine it as quickly as possible. Their print business—the physical costs associated with printing and distributing the paper, and the mental costs of sticking to a print-mindset and wanting to protect it—are holding the company back from fully emerging in this century as the most important publication in the world. While they can’t simply ditch the print business, I think their digital business should be protected and allowed to operate with a certain level of autonomy and freedom from intervention from other company interests.

Allow them to experiment. Allow them to create this century’s New York Times. Don’t be hesitant. Make waves, and turn the newspaper into something even more powerful, insightful and exciting for the decades to come.

  1. It’s worth noting, too, that subscriptions may not be the only revenue they derive from their dedicated subject readers. Perhaps it will be a combination of a relatively cheap subscription and targeted, specific advertising. This could be particularly successful because by building a very dedicated audience around specific topics, they have a more exclusive audience for specific advertising. The rates received for it, then, could be significantly better than they receive for advertisements to the general audience. []