You know your readers, but do you know who’s not reading?

As I continue to watch the news industry grab for a way out of the hole it has dug itself, I can certainly understand the frustration that blogger Mark Potts expressed in his recent posting.  I think most of the industry gadflies feel the same way as we watch the tide turn to forcing customers to pay for content.

The reports indicate that those who are planning pay formats during the year seem to know who their readers are. But, given the plans in place, you have to wonder if they know who their readers AREN”T. And aren’t they the ones you want to go after and keep?

If you look at most online news outlets today, they are basically electronic versions of the print product. They are focused at a general audience, with numerous categories (news, sports, business, local listings, local entertainment, classified ads, etc.). They are intended for an audience that is used to  accepting the overall package and sifting through it for what they want.

That was the mass audience that had few avenues for news for the past century. However, we’ve witnessed the break-up of the mass audience in the past 20 years. As new technologies, such as cable television and the advent of 24-hour news channels, cropped up in the 80’s, we began to see a slow erosion of the mass audience. The Internet’s arrival in the 90’s added to that erosion, but the introduction of cheap, high-speed internet and the advent of social networking was the grenade that blew the mass audience into bits.

Today’s audience has, literally, an overload of sources for news and information available at their fingertips. And instead mass audience, individuals are part of information communities. These communities can be based on a number of factors: geography, demographics, education, politics, hobbies, personal interests, etc. One person can be a member of many communities. But what make it unique is that the communities will obtain information and pass it along to other members of that particular group. And as members find interest in what others are sourcing, they will be likely to pass it along to other communities they belong to as well.

In today’s audience, the community member is the gatekeeper. It becomes the news organization’s role to provide them with information that is vital, useful and relevant to that group. If it is successful, then that organization is likely to be introduced to other communities through that reader or his particular group.

So, instead of providing a one-size-fits-all package, it would make more sense for the organization to target specific readership communities, and then create products that fit what that community is looking for. We’re seeing that happen with the latest incarnation of hyperlocal news sites, but even those could be targeted down to specific groups, such as products designed specifically for local businesses or a dynamic local social calendar.

In developing these products, they should be designed to meet what the customer is looking for, whether it be relevance, credibility, timeliness or convenience. We’ve already seen studies that indicate people would be willing to pay for content if it provides them with value and convenience. Those need to be two of the main criteria.

Then, once they are available, the organization must be able to sell itself into the targeted community. It must convince its members that the product is one they absolutely need to fulfill its demands for news and information. If it is successful and sustained, the community’s members will then carry your product to other communities…in effect taking it viral. That’s how your product will achieve success.

I’m still a firm believer that creating a number of small, limited-audience products of value and relevance would create a new revenue stream that may help keep the flagship afloat. But the key is that instead of forcing your current customers to pay more for your existing products, it would be wiser to attract new customers with dynamic, relevant products.

After all, aren’t paywalls akin to the government hiking your income tax?

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They say they’ll pay, but will they pay for you?

People say they would be willing to pay for content online. But, would they be willing to pay for YOUR content?

A new survey from the Pew Institute found that — contrary to perceived notions — people would be willing to pay for online content. That is good news for news organizations that have been struggling to find a way to financially sustain themselves in the new media world order.

The survey shows that 65 percent have paid for online content — things like music and video downloads of applications. As time has brought a new dimension to online purchasing, the idea of paying for content online has slowly found favor among the masses.

Hopefully news organizations that have been champing at the bit for years to place paywalls on their sites won’t use this survey as their green light. While people will be willing to pay for content such as news stories, they’ll also be more selective as to what they choose.

That means that if you’re the only source of news in your area, or have the status of being “top dog” in your area, you may be able to successfully apply a paid program. The New York Times is planning such a thing in 2011, and they may have success with it because — after all — they are the New York Times.

But for the hundreds of news organizations that compete with one another, or in markets that are becoming more saturated with alternative news sources such as hyperlocal operations, this will be tougher sell. In order to make your pay plan work, you will need to offer online and through mobile apps something that people will want to pay for. And what worked for you in print or over the air most likely won’t cut it online.

Keep your customer in mind. For example, I currently have 10 news-related apps on my iPhone, ranging from the New York Times, BBC and USA Today to some local news outlets . If I were the type of user the Pew survey mentioned, then I would be willing to pay up to $10 a month for a subscription to these outlets.

But would I be willing to pay $100 a month of all of this? Not likely, so I’ll probably cull down my news choices to 2 or 3 of the most useful ones for me. So seven or eight apps would bite the dust from my iPhone. Now multiply that by the millions of mobile app users out there who would most likely do the same with their devices.

How do you keep from being one of the 7 or 8? You make  your online product one that your customers need to go to first for their news fix. That means making it more than just an RSS feed or a listing of headlines. It needs to be dynamic, interactive and unique to your market.  Most important, it needs to be there when your customers come to you.

That’s what people will pay for.

Is your organization there yet?

Quick takes: Paywalls, Patch work and point people

A new notes:

* Interesting move in California: The Sonoma Index-Tribune decided to drop its online paywall this week after AOL’s Patch hyperlocal product started a site in the community. Patch, which integrates journalists with user-submitted content, is offered at no cost for web access. The Index-Tribune’s program was three months in before the plug was pulled.

Lesson learned: You can charge for online content when you’re the only game in town. But if you are the only game in town and are charging for online content, you open the door to competition.

* Speaking of Patch, the Chicago Reader’s Mike Miner had a good piece on the life of local Patch reporters and editors, noting that AOL’s venture hired more journalists than any other business this year, although the average salary, while tempting for those straight out of college, was obviously a large step down for many out-of-work veterans who now are Patch people .

Miner likened the Patch experience to his own roots starting with UPI many, many years ago. Judging from my observations of the site and the working by friends who are employed, I have to agree that there is a scrappiness to many of these sites that you don’t see from most other hyperlocals (Triblocal being an exception here in Chicago). Judging from Miner’s story, it does sound a lot like my first gig at a small weekly newspaper. 

So it is refreshing that AOL’s venture into journalism is providing a great platform for new journalists to cut their teeth and hone their skills.

What’s sad is there isn’t much to jump to after that. The moral here: Follow your passion, but keep your day job.

 *New York Times Social Media Editor Jennifer Preston will be reassigned to a reporting role next year, with her duties as the Time’s social media point person going to the interactive staff. While she had been criticized at the beginning for not knowing much about social media, you have to give her credit for helping NYT focus its social media strategy and teach staff how to utilize it.

If you follow NYT socially, you know  how well they’ve integrated it into their news strategy, and how interactive many of the key staff are. Here’s hoping that eliminating the point person means the social media ship can run itself.

It’s news when they say it’s news

I had the privilege to be the guest of Nancy Kirby’s media class at North Central College in Naperville this week. I always enjoy speaking to college students because it gives me the opportunity to learn firsthand the media habits of our young adults.

What I found with this group was that young adults, in general, are very much interested in what’s happening in their world, keeping in mind that their world may have a different view than our world. The majority of the class are still tuned in to and seek out news, but how they do that has significantly changed.

As I had expected, few read newspapers or watch TV news. Many get news through the use of  Google, Yahoo or various RSS feeds. More are going mobile in their news gathering. Many more find and pass along news through social networking.  In other words, the young sample I viewed acted as their own gatekeeper in obtaining their news.

But our discussions took us into the concern over the quality and credibility of the content they find. Many were concerned about how media — both mainstream and new age — produce content that can be trusted and credible. The concern about posting incorrect information for the sake of immediacy, correcting stories on the fly, or trusting stories from sites with a defined agenda.

I noted recent studies that show that news organizations that had trust and credibility in their print and on-air products will see that trust translate to online. Most of the class seemed to agree with that — that is good news for the traditional media.

However, this microscope of young readers may reveal the fatal flaw in the argument for online pay walls. While readers may trust your content, they are not necessarily loyal to your product. Google, Yahoo and RSS have made our sites simply dishes in a giant smorgasbord of content, and our young readers are selecting pieces from each dish to satisfy their news hunger.

So should you charge by the slice? Or charge the spoon that taps into your dish? I’m not sure what the answer is here, but I do think the industry needs to examine this pattern further before they rush to throw tollbooths in front of their sites.

It’s no longer news when you say it’s news. It’s news when the reader says so.

Addendum: It was also encouraging to also see a couple of members in the class who were still serious about getting into journalism after graduation. It’s a tough time in the industry right now, but it was refreshing to see there are still young people who have the idealism and tenacity to stick it through.

The Times of London last weekend had an article about this new flood of journalism grads into the marketplace. Although it was written for the British market, I believe this story should be read at every journalism school commencement ceremony, as it is encouraging but realistic. Here’s the link.

Maybe failure should be an option

In  looking at the recent disappointing ABC circulation reports, and the subsequent first quarter ad revenues, I’m left with scratching my head as to why, after 4 years, the newspaper industry still hasn’t found new and exciting ways to regain readers and advertisers.

It’s especially frustrating when the industry has been handed a fantastic new platform from which to do new and exciting products — the Apple iPad — and the industry responds for the most part with the same old same old.

At a time when Steve Job is disappointed with what the New York Times has done with its iPad app, you have to wonder why the industry hasn’t spent more time developing new, innovative things that will attract new readers and revenues.

Could it be they’re too afraid to take a risk for fear of falling off the edge? It would seem to be the only logical answer. The newspaper industry has had a rich history of being risk-adverse and, with few exceptions, tends to wait for someone else to find success before they enter into the fray.

The culture of  making financial ends meet while doing more with fewer resources has created a corporate climate that accepts “just getting by.”  Innovation is whatever meets the immediate need, or grabbing the low-lying fruit. But, as we’ve seen, those efforts have not offered any return. Forward thinking and looking beyond the low branches is discouraged in order to meet the demands of now.

As a result, any possibility of failure is enough to quash a good idea. But the opposite has historically held true … that from failure comes great innovation. The best innovations did not come about on the first try. For every patent Thomas Edison created, he had hundreds of failures. Editorial management consultant Edward Miller recently quotes a Fortune 500 CEO saying: “We become uncompetitive by not being tolerant of mistakes.  The moment you let avoiding failure become your motivator, you’re down the path of inactivity.  You can stumble only if you’re moving.”

The industry needs to shake off its fear of failure and start taking steps. Listen to your customers. Look at innovation. Miller even suggests creating “experimental teams.” Take steps, stumble on occasion. But at least get moving.

Maybe it’ll make Steve Jobs happy.

Content: Readers must want to pay, not have to pay

Two excellent blog postings came across my laptop this week in regards to online content:

1.Alan Mutter’s “free suggestions” on paid content, which notes several models that have been tried and failed.

2. Web wunderkind (maybe still a wunder, but less of a kind today) Rob Curley says that repurposing your web site to fit new technologies (in his case, the iPad) is not the way to go if you want to gain audience and, potentially, new revenue streams.

Both Mutter and Curley highlight what we’ve been shouting for the past few years: Simply charging for the “same old, same old” isn’t going to cut it. The industry shot itself in the foot in the ’90s by failing to recognize the potential of the Internet. Publishers can not go back and say “we blew it, so now you must pay for our mistakes.” That may only hold up in markets where the content provider has no immediate competition, but that does not guarantee someone could come in and undercut the incumbent.

What people will pay for is something that they believe is unique — an experience that they cannot get anywhere else. Many newspaper readers remain loyal to that product because it is an overall sensory experience to them. The tactile feel of the paper, the ability to sit back and relax anywhere, the discovery of something new while looking for something else. That experience cannot be repurposed to the web, so we need to find new ways to do that.

So many news organizations have brought on ‘innovative’ people, yet with few exceptions there has been no major innovation that has attracted audiences. Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated demo last December has that experience potential, and I hope they do adopt it for their iPad format. Curley’s Las Vegas Sun format has great potential as well. But the  industry needs to make readers want to read their products — only then will they be willing to pay for it. 

Remember, readers won’t pay for content if they have to. They will pay if they want to.

You must make them believe they want your content!

Update: Miami Herald pulls the tip jar

The Miami Herald this week decided to pull the plug on one of the more unique experiments in paid online content — the voluntary pay program, or as it was known among media critics, the  ‘tip jar.’

The program started last December with the paper politely asking readers to make a donation whenever they read a story on the Herald’s Web site. Although the Herald did not disclose just how much money it collected through the program, it is assumed that it barely generated any cash for the paper.

Give the Herald credit for trying it. But as we’ve seen from other attempts at soliciting payments to read online news, the public isn’t ready to give up free content the way they gave up free television to cable and satellite in the ’80s and ’90s.

I think tip jars do have some merit for garnering minor revenue, and in hindsight maybe the Herald went about it all  wrong. Tips tend to be of a personal nature, a reward given to a person for a job well done. They rarely are given to aid a large, faceless business. For example, when you go into a Starbucks, you’ll find a tip jar at every counter. But people who put money in the jar are not doing so to contribute to Starbucks’ corporate success. They are contributing to the hard-working barristas behind the counter as a way of saying thank you for excellent service.

Would people tip a big, faceless newspaper for a well-done story, or would they be more likely to tip the reporter writing the story, or the photographer who took the photo? If the Miami Herald said in its plea that the donation would help reporter Joe Smith keep his house and ward off his creditors, would readers be more sensitive to tipping?

Like the barristas — and waiters, bartenders, barbers and all those who receive tips on a regular basis — I wouldn’t expect to make a decent living off such a tip jar. But, it may be a way for journalists — especially freelancers or independent bloggers — to make a few extra bucks to help support their work.