The plunge

Matt Cooney

There’s a certain delight in watching someone else in your industry tempt fate. National Business Review publisher Barry Colman invited a firestorm when he announced that the NBR would stop publishing all its content online for free, and instead would save some of its material for paid subscribers.

The idea was probably bound to draw ridicule, but Colman’s slagging of the “hysterical” blogosphere in his announcement made it a certainty. There was some measured reaction too, notably from Bernard Hickey and Lance Wiggs. I thought I’d wait a week to see how the experiment goes.

Colman is taking a stand on the meme of the moment: free vs paid. Wired editor Chris Anderson, who has made a career working on decidedly paid-for publications like The Economist, is about to release his book Free, which has been widely pre-empted on his blog and his magazine. And media barons everywhere are preparing for a major scrap with their online audience, aggregators and search engines over how they should be paid for their content—if at all.

The Associated Press, for example, appears to think it will be able to attach some kind of DRM to its articles. With ideas like that, the AP is buying itself a big bag of disappointment.

But ‘free’ has its limits. If your content is valuable enough—and particularly if it might make you money—somebody will pay for it. So the NBR is probably the mainstream media outlet most likely to actually make a paywall work. And Colman apparently feels he has little choice: if he’s at the point where the alternative is laying off journalists, then the viability and future credibility of the NBR is at stake.

Like most observers, I don’t think the NBR’s plan will work—at least in its current form—but unlike some others, I’d be thrilled if it did. The NBR has set the standard for online general business news over the past year or so, and it’s important that we have comprehensive, independent business journalism in New Zealand. I’d hate to rely on the Herald or Fairfax to provide daily business news. And I like the idea of an Internet ecosystem with space for every type of venture: professional, amateur, aggregated, paid-for, ad-supported, sponsored, free and every permutation thereof. If software as a service has value, why shouldn’t other services?

When Rupert Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal it was with the stated intention of making its news free online; that plan has gone nowhere and the Journal remains paid-only. The New York Times, which abandoned the paywall around its columns just two years ago, is set to limit all its content to paid subscribers. It could happen as early as next month. Sure, the NBR is not The New York Times, but it doesn’t need a million online subscribers. A few thousand might make all the difference, and that is doable—the site currently gets around 10,000 visitors a day.

And yet … as Colman said in his letter, the success of his plan will depend on the quality of subscriber-only content. So, after a week, how’s it looking?

Here are the stories last week that were limited to subscribers. On Monday, we learned—or, most likely, didn’t learn:

On Tuesday:

On Wednesday:

On Thursday:

And on Friday:

Colman promised subscribers would get “only the best news stories, scoops and commentary pieces”, but there’s nothing in that list that the NBR wouldn’t have covered the week before. It’s also a weird selection: opinion, breaking news, markets and industry news. It’s hard not to think someone is checking the Herald and Dominion-Post twice a day and restricting the stories that the papers don’t have. Ideally, the NBR would be able to produce a string of stories that would give subscribers a clear competitive advantage. Most interest is probably in the Rich List story, but it’s only two years ago that the Rich List was the vehicle chosen to launch the short-lived NBR Magazine. Hopefully that’s not an omen.

It’s a balancing act, of course. Despite Colman’s diatribe, the NBR needs news aggregators to attract viewers, bloggers to link to its stories and search engines to index pages for the future. So NBR can’t afford to close off the good stuff, but until it does, there’s little reason to subscribe. Just to complicate matters, the product that is actually paying the bills—the printed paper—can’t be undermined. And so there’s the bizarre situation that stories in Friday’s paper aren’t available that day on the website, even to online subscribers.

And here’s a question: let’s say that tomorrow, the NBR has a huge story. A minister on the take, or fraud in a big boardroom. That must be a subscriber-only story, right? No way—as soon as the NBR’s story is behind a paywall, they lose control of it. The Herald and TVNZ—and those hysterical bloggers—will follow it up and they’ll get the eyeballs, the links, the ad impressions—and the kudos.

So what else can NBR do? Wiggs and Hickey both suggest cutting costs. Wiggs refers to Hickey’s interest.co.nz as the online example and to Idealog as the model for print (thanks!). He has a point. Hickey’s blogs and reports on interest.co.nz are always timely and often brilliant. Idealog has a full-time staff of, er, me, supported by sales and design staff who also work on other titles. We commission photographers and writers to keep the content lively and varied and so we’re paying just for what we publish. Interest.co.nz is built on open-source software and infrastructure costs are kept to a minimum. This site is constructed in-house (designed by Su Yin Khoo and developed by me) using an open-source framework. Our print costs are kept as low as possible through sponsorship arrangements with like-minded companies.

Hickey says the best way to cut costs is to stop the press. Coincidentally, that’s the decision taken last week by the Australian magazine that’s probably closest to Idealog in its focus, Anthill.

I doubt that model will work for NBR, though it’s still preferable to the paywall. The fact is that the NBR has rarely spent money unnecessarily [update: and I should have pointed out that the NBR website, too, is already built on an open-source system]. No doubt there are savings to be made but they’re unlikely to solve the fundamental problem.

I would argue that to survive online, every publication has to closely examine its product. Newspapers are a product of the printing press, but the web is a different medium. Merely placing reportage on a website won’t cut it anymore. Just like the record labels, media companies are threatened by the arrival of compelling new technology. If you can’t beat it, embrace it.

In the NBR’s case, this means deciding either to make all its content available online for free, or none of it. And if the paywall is the only answer, make it so cheap—perhaps a dollar a week, billed monthly—that it’s an impulse purchase for as many readers as possible. And then you can finally turn off that expensive press.

But a more interesting approach would be to make the current content available for free, and use the unique reach and interactivity of the web to roll out new services that people will pay for. Become an expert in data—the Bloomberg of the South Pacific. Aggregate it, mash it, hyper-localise it, search it for trends and twists and tales that only data can tell.

Give people business tools. Buy the über-smart Valuecruncher.com (quickly!). Use it to develop a co-branded product for brokers to offer their clients. Become the authoritative source on finance and lending (Hickey has provided the template). Hire developers. Pair them with journos and tell them to find the most compelling ways to present business information. Make the NBR newsroom the place to be for a new generation of online newshounds.

If you’re thinking that doesn’t sound like what Idealog is doing, well, it isn’t. At the MPA magazine awards last month, Idealog won the top award in every design category: supreme designer, supreme cover and best use of photography. The fact is that feature-length stories are still best told in print, and we’re determined to take full advantage of the medium.

We’re not ignoring online, of course (we also won the best business website award). Just like the NBR, our print product effectively subsidises the website. But we know the web will steadily become a bigger part of the business and we look forward to being able to invest further in it. Whatever we do, our content will remain free. We do have some online stablemates, such as a New Zealand B2B version of Celsias.com, currently in soft launch.

And there are more to come. In August we’ll be launching another new online product that, of course, will be free. It’ll even be taking on an established, paid-for competitor. Chris Anderson would be proud.

But, like Barry Colman, we’d like our website to become a more fundamental part of our business. I’d be thrilled to hear your ideas.