With print in decline, newspapers are banding together to charge for online content. Are they misreading the nature of the Web?
By VIJAY VERGHESE
Signs of the times: Welcome to the Heritage Haveli. Even in rural India, the Internet is ubiquitous.
TWENTY YEARS AGO information was a scarce commodity. So scarce in fact that people did some unbelievable things to secure it. They paid for it and waited patiently, for a week, a month, or more, to receive their favourite magazines. Information was a magic word, its liberating nuggets avidly sought by anyone thinking himself to be remotely upwardly mobile with two brain cells to exercise. There was a single route to enlightenment. Print.
Fifty years back when I was growing up, information was rarer still. Along with the other kids on my block, I carefully clipped out coupons from dog-eared comics bearing the bold declaration, "Yes, people kick sand in my face and I too want a body like Charles Atlas." These I religiously mailed back to the USA. It mattered not a jot that New Delhi is around 1,000km from the nearest beach. I never heard back.
Today information on steroids has become a surplus commodity. It chases you, hounds you, beeps, vibrates, pops up, invades and permeates every waking moment.
As in any oversupply scenario, no one pays for information and no one waits.
Today information on steroids has become a surplus commodity. It chases you, hounds you, beeps, vibrates, pops up, invades and permeates every waking moment to the point where you can't wait to unplug and get away from the onslaught. As in any oversupply scenario, no one cares to pay for information and no one waits. That's the economics of it. The Web has become a staunch champion of free information but it has also served to seemingly devalue knowledge.
So whatever happened to quality? Print media is awash with exhilarating examples of investigative reporting and pulse-quickening design. The Web is catching up on substance and style but much of its heft is unverifiable balderdash. Why then, have readers switched camps so decisively?
Instead of being read by paying subscribers, newspapers and magazines are being dumped free in hotel rooms in the hope someone will pick them up. It is a futile exercise. And an accelerating worldwide trend. This idle "bulk" distribution – a large segment on any circulation audit statement – is a telling statistic in the march of print to the precipice. And this has led to the creation of "old media" combines that feverishly – and cogently – advertise their case. In May 2010, Conde Nast, Time Inc and Hearst Magazines did the unthinkable. They joined forces to roll out a "Power of Print" advertising campaign with catchy slogans like, "Did Instant Coffee Kill Coffee?" to lure wayward punters back.
In examining the decline of print, the issue is not one of quality. It is of accessibility. And changed lifestyle. Bankers read. Their children click, tweet, and throw sheep on Facebook. If you want a good read, you buy a magazine, or a newspaper. If you want information, you go online. This is the new watershed, the divide between old and new media. The former once attracted readers – a dwindling species as time becomes ever more scarce and online access ever more cheaply and universally available – and the latter appeals to information seekers who cherry-pick data. This renewed focus on information offers some hope for niche how-to publications that, by satisfying this need, are not just surviving, but thriving.
People surf the Web primarily to find an answer to a question, usually in the form of a query entered into a search engine like Google or Bing. They do not use the humble mouse to scroll through Gone With The Wind. They look for recipes, today's weather, and cricket results. Questions demand immediate answers and the Internet is best positioned to respond. In today's world, the Internet is friend, father, god and executioner.
There are some dangers inherent in this tectonic reading shift. The paucity of quality prose online and the imminent demise of professional journalists – as doomsayers aver – are just two examples. The key strength of a newspaper or magazine is its ability to curate information. In theory at least, a newspaper gathers and then processes data through several layers of "checks and balances" to sift out blemishes, untruths, and rumour, to turn out a fair and nuanced piece of reporting, the relative importance of stories evident in the point size of the headlines and the column inches devoted to them. The Web on the other hand by and large offers no hierarchy of information. Just boxes. You work out what's important. A newspaper fights to obtain facts, train reporters, and build its collective experience. Viewed pejoratively, the Web is simply a collective dumping ground. In the information blizzard that is cyberspace, credible brands are developing, but slowly.
Ink-on-the-hands broadsheets were heretofore the large dams that collected and stored information that trickled in from across the country and the world. This information was then released in manageable doses each day. Today, the torrent of information is flowing around these dams, bypassing distribution systems, nurturing, confusing, polluting, and overwhelming people, and steadily blurring the lines between Joe Blow blogger blather and quality journalism. This is akin to being submerged in a flood and trying to find a tap with clean drinking water. To quote the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, "Water, water, everywhere... nor any drop to drink."
The contention is that if sufficient publications band together and close their doors to non-paying punters with the added lure of exclusive video and multimedia goodies, it will drive up the value of quality information by creating an artificial scarcity
Some in print have sought safety in numbers to propose super groups. Yet, efforts of this ilk are doomed. The secret of survival in the information world is not size. It is speed.
Again, newspapers are largely parochial in appeal and content. Their readers focus first on issues relating to their mohalla, kampong, parish, or city before proceeding to the national or world stage. This is because information closest to the reader affects him directly – a closed footpath, an airport disruption, or a flu epidemic at a neighbourhood school. Matters of state and politics are more distant, best savoured later over coffee. A few newspapers like The New York Times have tried to rise above parochial underpinnings to stride the national – or even global – stage, with varying results. But a newspaper is fundamentally a platform for local expression. Size is not what counts.
To run free content online – thus far the unwritten orthodoxy of the medium – or to charge for it, is a basic dilemma for the print media today. It is its single biggest challenge. There are no easy answers.
London's The Sunday Times and The Times have started charging online readers (£1 for a day or £2 every week for a longer term subscription) and Rupert Murdoch's News of the World follows suit. Over 2011 the venerable New York Times switches to a metered system where charges apply after a particular monthly word mileage.
The contention is that if sufficient publications band together and close their doors to non-paying punters with the added lure of exclusive video and multimedia goodies, it will drive up the value of quality information by creating an artificial scarcity. The problem with this surmise is simple. Everyone must join the picket line. Just one leak in the boat will be enough to scupper the entire idea. People will simply wander off to other free watering holes like The Guardian.
London's print edition of the Evening Standard meanwhile is perversely free, shifting the focus of the battle. Hong Kong's broadsheet-turned-tabloid The Standard is free as well though with anorexic news pages and wraparound-cover ads that have obliterated the marque. Other publications, while "paid" are so only notionally. It is a case of the Emperor's new clothes. A one year subscription to the glossy romance siren Conde Nast Traveler is priced at just US$12 (or US$1 per issue, about the price of a single copy of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong). The retail newsstand price for Conde Nast Traveller (the new India edition) is Rs100. These are quality publications. But lifestyles have changed.
Asian newspapers are no laggards when it comes to charging online customers. They were the first to lock up information and demand registration and/or subscription. Hong Kong's leading daily, the South China Morning Post, retails for HK$7 and charges HK$399 (US$51) a year online. In Hong Kong as in several cities around Southeast Asia, this is an easier task as the paper enjoys a near monopoly in the English language reading market. Thailand's Bangkok Post and The Nation offer free online access as does Malaysia's mass circulation The Star.
Singapore's The Business Times offers only paying subscribers full access online while sister publication The Straits Times, Singapore is free. Feeding India's voracious appetite for information, The Times of India, Indian Express and The Hindu, all offer free access for now.
Should you pay for all kinds of information? Perhaps not. You should be able to access basic information that directly affects your quality of life or livelihood. India took a brave step forward with its landmark 2005 Right to Information Act. This guarantees citizens the right to information from any government arm. Information is power. Withholding it deprives people of their basic right to make sound decisions. Should people pay for quality journalism? Yes. But the dice are stacked against it.
It is time for old media to finally accept that the Web – bells, whistles, warts and all – provides the fast front end of the business while print provides the depth. The two media are complementary, not competitive. The way forward is together.
Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.
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