Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

As we head into the homestretch of 2010, we’ve seen a lot of activity in the journalism world—many experiments and attempts to find a working, profitable content creation and delivery model. Maybe we’ve finally gotten past the blame game and gotten to the point where we are actually looking for answers. If that’s the case, it’s a positive step, and it is interesting to watch different companies grasp for answers to the content model conundrum. The problem, however, remains a stubborn adherence to the idea of maintaining control over the content. With few exceptions, publishers seemed focused on finding new ways to lock down content.

Some—such as Rupert Murdoch (a favorite scapegoat in this column, I know)—have chosen to return to old ways by hiding the content behind a paywall. With reckless disregard for search engines or social media links and referrals, those who follow this philosophy have decided that if you want to see their precious content, by golly, you’ll pay. It’s one way of approaching the problem, but it’s a step backward, ignoring all the advantages of the internet by hiding the content in an isolated silo. While charging for content is an age-old model, it doesn’t seem to be the way to go, given the interconnected nature of digital content and the fact that most sites can’t easily differentiate themselves from the pack of free alternatives.

Others have taken a more forward-looking approach, believing that the iPad (and other tablets as they emerge) will provide a profitable delivery platform for publishers. I’m not so sure this is completely true, but at least it’s an attempt to try something new. Several publications charge by the app or for a subscription, while The Atlantic has a plan to charge you for an issue and another fee for fresh daily content.

However, in The Atlantic’s case, the content will be available for free on the website, so why would users pay for it? According to a post on, The Atlantic’s publishers believe customers will pay for the experience inside the iPad app. Having not seen the app, it’s hard to judge—but it would need to be pretty special to get people to pay a premium for content they could read for free.

Then, there is the new Gourmet magazine’s recipe: In June, Condé Nast announced it was resurrecting Gourmet as a digital edition, after mothballing the venerable print magazine last year. And at the end of August, Folio reported that Gourmet had a new print approach too—limited-edition runs of special issues that would reportedly sell for $10.99 a pop. Hefty, but Gourmet has a rabid and wealthy fan base, so it could work.

Meanwhile, The Financial Times (FT) of London, which has been one of the more successful publishers at making the transition online—perhaps because of the high value of financial data—announced the addition of a series of paid microsites. This is part of a strategy to further reduce the company’s reliance on advertising. According to a report released by FT’s parent company, Pearson, FT seems to be on the right track, having reduced reliance on advertising from 74% in 2000 to 45% in 2009.

On one hand, these efforts are a huge proactive step in the right direction. But too many publications show a disappointing inclination to use new methods to implement old content-isolation ideas. If that’s the case, it’s probably just a recipe for further failure and stagnation. The tablet certainly shows promise. But on its own, it’s probably not going to be the answer as it’s only one source of revenue, and publications will likely need to diversify and find many ways to make up for the loss of ad dollars over the past several years. Plus, publications need to be careful not to use the app model as a content isolation end run.

More than any one thing, it’s going to take a radical shift in mindset. Publishers can no longer afford to delude themselves that content alone has high monetary value. Instead, publishers need to look to models such as the FT’s and even the Gourmet experiment and find multiple ways to earn revenue beyond clicks and in addition to advertising revenue. We have to work to redefine revenue expectations in light of the monumental shift we have seen in recent years, and we must continue to think creatively regarding both business models and increasing content value through quality and user experience as we move onward into the next phase of publishing history.