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April 24, 2014

The Newsonomics of All Access -- & Apple

First published at Nieman Journalism Lab

Don’t wait for the white smoke to waft over America’s tech consumer Vatican, the Cupertino headquarters of Apple. The electronic elves are too busy shipping Christmas iPads, and figuring stock-option payouts based on 2011-12 sales projections. Those projections, newly minted by eMarketer, call for another 50 million iPads to be sold in the U.S. alone over the next two years, atop the eight million they think will sell by year’s end. (Other manufacturers would only sell another 20 million tablets in the U.S. over the same period.)

The white smoke? That would be the signal to news and magazine publishers of how Apple is going to allow access to the tablet kingdom. We’ve seen lots of debate, quasi-information, and mixed signals out of Apple about how digital subscriptions will work, including who will keep which revenue and who will partake of user data, the new digital gold. Apple execs talk regularly to publishers, under threat of severe NDA. Those discussions and the back and forth of dealing with Apple on how apps must be configured to get approved are described as an exercise in Kremlinology — trying to divine how things are really working and will work, without actually being told.

After talking with numerous people in and around the tablet/apps industry, I think we can divine the 2011 policy and clear away the smoke and mirrors. Simply put, this is what the de facto Apple policy on digital news subscriptions appears to be:

  • Publishers can charge their digital readers for tablet — and smartphone — subscriptions, and keep the generated revenue stream.
  • Publishers can offer “free” apps in the Apple store — iTunes for now, iNewsstand maybe not too far away.
  • Publishers must — and here’s the rub — restrict browser access is some form. In other words, you can’t simply charge for digital content on the tablet and the smartphone and let it run freely wild through a browser. The pay models may not have to be the same, tablet to smartphone to browser (that’s unclear), but publishers can’t two use two opposite approaches and use the iTunes stores an initial access point to gain customers and keep all the resulting revenue.
  • Publishers must do their own authentication of users and their own e-commerce outside the Apple interface, to make the program work.

Importantly, numerous news players are acting on the belief that the above will be the policy, given their conversations with Apple. If that seemingly de facto policy becomes formal — with the announcement of the iPad 2? — it will have far-reaching implications. In fact, it gives a rocket boost to the “paid content” (meaning new streams of digital reader revenue) revolution now in front of us. Why? It marks the convergence — maybe the ratification — of three big things happening as we enter 2011. Put them together, and you have the Newsonomics of all-access.

Number one: The tablet. It’s a reader’s product, and therefore a news publishers’ dream. Longer session times. Longer reading forms embraced. A greater willingness among consumers to pay. Print-like advertising experiences — and rates. All of those results, reported privately by the big news companies that are first to market with tablet products and also in a user survey just released by the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute here, are preliminary. (More on the recent Roger Fidler-led Digital Publishing Alliance conference, at which I spoke, here.)

As the iPad moves from Apple lovers to mass market, those numbers should moderate. Yet the very nature of the tablet is telling us that digital news reading isn’t what we thought it was — only a Kibbles ‘n Bits, check-in-on-the-briefs-and-scoot reading experience. It looks like a lot of what we thought were huge changes in news reading behavior may have had as much to do with what the nature of a computer (desktop, laptop) reading experience, and not with a change in the nature of humans themselves. We’ll see, but meanwhile, it looks like a good fifth of the country will have a tablet by 2014.

Number two: That paid content push. 2010 has been prologue, as The New York Times took the year to lay extensive plans, connecting pivotal technology, and Journalism Online traversed the country (and lately other continents) preaching from the pulpit of the Holy Church of Freemium and the practice of metering. Don’t erect a paywall, like News Corp. did in London with the Times; start the meter, track it, and charge accordingly. That’s the Financial Times model, and the one The New York Times and Journalism Online cite as a bible, along with learnings from The Wall Street Journal’s freemium experience, a pivotal education for JO principal Gordon Crovitz, who served as WSJ publisher. The digital reader revenue payment was born out of abject frustration, as publishers concluded that digital advertising itself would never support the large news enterprises they wanted to maintain. They were tired of unicycling into the future; digital reader revenue restores the “circulation” leg of the business, providing (in the abstract) two strong legs to stand out going forward.

Number three: The arrival — finally, o Lord — of the news-anywhere, multi-platform, multi-device world that we’ve been envisioning for more than a decade (“The Newsonomics of News Anywhere“). For more than a decade, it was a print/online world, in the minds of publishers. Now it’s a print/online (desktop, laptop), smartphone, tablet — and soon Apple TV for news — world. That changes everything in how product is thought out, created, presented and sold.

Put these three phenomena together — a multi-platform world in which the tablet becomes a prime part of daily news reading, reading that will be partly charged for — and you have the shiny new business model of 2011: all-access. I’ve written about all-access and exhorted those publishers with high-quality, differentiated news products to embrace it (see “The Newsonomics of the Fading 80/20 rule“, on Time Warner moves). Now, the forces of the times seem to have conspired to bring it forward and make it dominant.

No, there has been no announcement of a warm all-access embrace, but consider:

  • It’s the model used by the paid-content champ FT (“The Newsonomics of FT as an Internet Retailer“) and The Economist.
  • It’s the model just embraced, without fanfare, by The Wall Street Journal, which had throughout the year priced each new digital platform separately. In its recent announcement of an Android tablet product, it said: “A full digital subscription is available for $3.99 per week, which provides access to WSJ Tablet Edition for Android and iPad, WSJ.com, and WSJ Mobile Reader for BlackBerry and iPhone. Current Journal subscribers receive full access to the WSJ Tablet Edition for free for a limited time.”
  • The New York Times model will follow the same across-platform approach when it launches metered pricing early next year.
  • And, it’s not just the big guys. Take Morris’ Augusta Chronicle, a new Journalism Online customer, which just went metered– and all-access, including its upcoming tablet product in the subscription bundle. Expect to see other Journalism Online customers — a few dozen to start — follow this model next year, along with a number of other dailies that tell me they are planning a similar approach.

The big idea? Cement the relationship with those readers who really want your news, delivered by your brand, global, national or local. Say simply: We’ll make it easy for you to read the news however, wherever, on whatever you want and offer it at a single bundled price. Expect three basic offers: Everything (Print + all digital forms), Print Only and the Digital Bundle (probably including the odd cousin of the digital group, the e-edition), plus some by-the-device (iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, etc.) pricing. It’s certainly not a news-only idea, as Netflix, HBO, and Comcast build out the same model.

It’s a tablet-fed, Apple-polished tablet do-over, and for many news publishers, really a do-or-die effort to reassert brand and product value, reassembling a new business model and building what will sooner-than-later be a digital-mainly business. Will they succeed? Some — those with substantial product offerings that are not commoditized — who move the meter dials smartly, picking off the top five percent or so of their mostly digital visitors for payment will. In a twist on the now-legendary Jarvisism: Charge the best. Market ads to the rest. (And don’t scare them off with a paywall.) Other legacy publishers have cut too much to make the new math work, and still other newer publishers will find all-access works for them as well.

There are many more twists, turns, issues — many of them requiring technology lacking among many publishers — and obstacles yet to work through, but we’ll get to those into the new year. Apple’s own role certainly won’t be to remove itself from the new equation, but to find numerous ways — iAds anyone? — to harvest value.

For now, consider all-access the model to be tested in 2011.

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