Editorial – Print Wars

Want to be in the loop? To stay on top of current events, you might just have to pony up a few bucks?at least, if recent trends are here to stay.

In January, The New York Times rocked the media world when it announced its plan to limit the number of free online articles available to non-subscribers. Non-committed readers of The Times online would be restricted to 20 article views per month. And after a test run in Canada earlier this year, The Times went ahead with its plan, recently rolling out its new digital subscription plans?and sparking a frenzy of complaints, blog posts, discussions, and trendspotting.

The Times decision is rocking the media world, and not just on the consumer side. Because the Times is the first general-interest news magazine to attempt such a strategy, other publication execs are carefully watching. The future of newspapers and magazines is in the offing: print publication sales have been declining thanks to the proliferation of free online information, and many publishers are scrambling to recoup lost revenue. Some see the Times subscription strategy as a last-ditch effort to make peace with the Internet.

It’s not going to work.

The Times philosophy seems reasonable on its surface. They provide services (quality journalism, news, and commentary), and consumers pay for it. It’s what the publication has been doing for years; the only difference is the medium through which the services are provided.

But that difference is extremely significant. Accessions to social media and ease of work-arounds aside, The Times displays little foresight when it fails to acknowledge how much the brave new world of media is constantly changing. The last five years have revolutionized the way many of us communicate, and if the publishing world doesn’t stop looking at the web as yet another traditional form like print, It’s written its own death sentence.

The Times believes that committed readers will pay for the news they want. But a recent survey found that 90 per cent of Canadians would take their business elsewhere if faced with a paywall like The Times has erected. And incredibly, a staggering 70 per cent indicated that they would simply not pay to access online news?even ?if there were no free alternatives left.?

That’s how firmly ingrained in society is the belief that online news content should be freely available.

While the subscription model may have worked for the heyday of print publications, It’s no longer relevant in an age where information gathering has been transformed.

Simply put, people don’t access content, particularly news-based content, in the way they did 50?or even 10?years ago. This is the age of aggregate news sites, Twitter feeds, instant information at our very fingertips, as we cradle our smart phones. Smart searching automatically tailors our search results to increase their relevance. we’re used to getting what we want, fast?and then getting out. And we don’t expect to pay for it.

But the big publications don’t get it. Times vice-president for paid products Paul Smurl insisted that ?people are more used to paying for digital content with the advent of apps and the app store.? However, he’s ignoring the bigger picture. While users do purchase apps, the situation is quite different. Angry Birds aside, many apps are content-driven, but they are typically inexpensive (especially compared with, say, the Times e-subscription plans). More importantly, though, smart phone apps tend to be more specialized, almost individually tailored. In fact, most apps are incredibly niche-specific, and that trend has overshadowed much of the development of more general apps for smart phones and tablets.

It’s not surprising, then, that iPad magazine versions haven’t been doing nearly as well as expected. And while PC Magazine suggests that the root cause is a mishmash of privacy issues, tussles with the Apple store, and the newness of the iPad itself, I think the real culprit is the magazines? failure to engage the new reality of modern communication.

Theories abound, but I think one web developer put it best: the publishers, he claims, continue to make their online presence a duplicate of their print publication because it offers them ?the illusion of control.? And That’s hurting them because consumers are accustomed to controlling their own information gathering experiences.

For example, the developer points out, we’re used to obtaining our information ?fast,? and we want it personalized. ?Even the nichiest magazine,? he says, ?is going to have a lot of content that a reader doesn’t want.? Add in social networks, and the fact that much of what’s online already is free?and you have a recipe for disaster.

The future will tell whether the new Times strategy will be successful both financially and socially. But regardless of whether the news magazine makes up its deficit, until publishers acknowledge that the new information highway requires a whole new navigation system, they’ll find themselves increasingly on the off-ramp to nowhere.