The Washington Post’s incoming owner, Jeff Bezos, has said he wants to start a new Golden Era of journalism. There’s little indication of how, other than his saying that he is willing to experiment and give the paper plenty of “runway”.
Most analysts and commentators have no idea how he will improve the fortunes of the paper. It’s not like dozens of other newspapers haven’t tried (and are still trying) to figure out the secret how to better monetize the news. It’s clear that Bezos is bringing the eye of a high-tech start-up to the paper’s challenges with the hopes of finding that secret. And while we don’t know what he will do, there are many fairly obvious things he can do to bring a bit of the high-tech mindset to journalism.
Here’s 10 ideas of what can be done to better monetize the Post’s journalism.
#1: Pay for Time
Not Time magazine, but time: the 4th dimension. News reports are a wasting asset: their value decreases over time. Selling not only the news, but news at specific points along the arrow of time would allow the Post to charge different rates for different access. Consider the following access levels:
- Real-Time: “Tweet” like: reporters fire off 140-character updates of events as they’re happening, before the articles get drafted.
- Flash: Raw stories: first drafts and unedited reporting of newsworthy events.
- Priority: Edited stories, but before it hits the web site.
- First Press: Normal updates as they hit the net.
- Late-Edition: News after it’s been public for a while and no longer breaking.
If you want to know the news as it’s breaking, you can be charged a higher premium. If you’re willing to pay to read the paper on the web, you can have stories as they’re filed. But if you want to read the paper for free, well, then, you won’t mind a 2 hour delay before you have access to a story.
#2: Pay for the Bottom of the Pyramid
This is somewhat similar to #1, where people are paying to get better access to information. News articles are traditionally written in an inverted pyramid form: the 5 W’s and an H at the top, quickly, and elaborations and detail that follows.
Most people who read the news probably stop after a paragraph or two, and there’s little to distinguish the reporting of one source from another at that point. People who read at this level aren’t going to want to pay for access to the Post.
But some people want deeper discussion and analysis of the news. That’s where the cost is in journalism, and that’s where people should pay more. Charge a higher subscription fee for the deeper in the pyramid someone wants access. You want the headlines plus 5 paragraphs? That’s $1.99 a month. You want to read long form journalism? That’s $19.99 a month. You don’t want to pay? The headline and the first paragraph (ala WSJ).
As a benefit, it will indicate how much demand there is in long form journalism.
#3: Access to Reporters and Columnists
Analyst firms like Gartner provide private briefings for their clients and a chance for them to respond to questions. This is their revenue model: the more detailed, specialized, and tailored the information, the more it costs.
Somewhat similarly, Post writers do frequent Q&As with the public at large. This gives the readers a chance to ask questions about the news and get details that don’t make it into the printed reports.
This can all be monetized. The basic, open Q&A’s should be restricted just to paying customers. More advanced discussions, especially with field reporters, could be available either as part of a subscription or on a fee-per-service basis. Ultimately, there is no reason why, on a fee basis, subscribers couldn’t ask for short reports on special topics to be written by the experts on the Post’s staff.
#4: Reciprocal Memberships
There’s a lot of newspapers out there that all want me to pay for subscription access. I might pick one or two, but after that it’s not worth it. How annoying is it to have to sign up for access to some newspaper in Madison Wisconsin just for one article?
The Post could offer me a premium subscription includes 100 articles per month from other newspapers, including competitors like WaPo, LA Times, and WSJ. Some number of magazine (e.g., The Economist) articles beyond those paywalls would be nice, too. Just save me from having to create free accounts on all the other newspapers would almost be worth a subscription fee!
#5: Family Plan
If I could include myself, my wife, and children in a plan, I would pay more — or at least some — for online subscriptions. Kind of like what Netflix did in allowing a family to share an account or, dare I say it, the way I can share Amazon Prime with others.
#6: Contextual Advertising
You’ve seen it: the name of a product in a blog post is double underlined, and when you put your mouse over the word a small ad pops up. The Post could do this: read an article about iPhones, then follow the link to the iPhones for sale on Amazon or any other advertiser in the Post. The links could be within the content, or at the end of the article. The Post’s content management system knows more about the content of the article and what the most appropriate ads would be than any 3rd party ad server.
As long as there’s a Chinese wall between editorial and advertising, this poses no real ethical issues.
#7: Streaming News via API
Consider Twitter: For most people, access to Twitter is free. But if you want to get all of Twitter, however, it’s going to cost a lot. Online newspapers could develop their own “firehose” and deliver it to people for a fee. Why would people want this? You can easily imagine a financial firm looking to aggregate feeds from a variety of sources and apply filtering technology to them. Or a custom news app that people would use. By creating the ability for third parties to innovate, newspapers could unlock more value from their content. This is tied, a bit, with #1 — the fastest news delivery via automation would command a premium price.
#8: Open API for New Applications
Encourage people to write applications against the newspaper’s data, but charge for access above a free level. Let the app developers decide whether to build their own revenue model and pay a wholesale rate, or to just have their users subscribe at retail rates on their own. But make it easy and free for developer to build and sell apps. And cut one-off deals with developers for specialized access for their users.
The Post should present itself differently to every subscriber, with a collection of articles which are balanced between important news and topics that the user has expressed interests in via their reading patterns. Use tools like the recommendation engine that Amazon has (people like you read the following articles recently…) to surface content that is tailored to each subscriber. If paying for access saves time and allows the subscriber to find the right content easier, the subscription will be more valuable.
#10: Unbundled Comics
Just allow people to subscribe to the comics. Or the Sports. Or whatever section they want. Or just Dilbert.
There you have it. There are no doubt tons of more ideas that might work. The Post has the strong position of being a paper of record, where its content has compelling national value. It’s going to be a lot easier to monetize its privileged position than it would be for regional newspapers. But the Post has the ability to set trends, establish patterns, and create technologies that can be licensed to smaller papers to enable them to similarly unlock value.