Two very interesting stories caught my eye this week in the world of traditional and online news consumption. The first is that The Times, and Sunday Times, launched redesigned websites and will begin charging next month after offering registered users a free trial for four weeks. The Guardian has done a good write up.
To my mind these two announcements couldn’t have been better timed as they show how the consumption of news is changing (at least in the U.S), next to the reaction of a traditional media outlet to this change.
I’ve gone on record in the past and said that switching to a paid-for content model, with only minor changes to the offering, is often an old-media reaction to a new media problem, i.e. `Our content is available online for free, and we’re losing money, so let’s charge for the content – that will work!’ Well, yes it would, assuming those that currently consume your content are willing to pay for it, or at least a certain percentage are willing to pay.
The obvious issue with this approach is most are not willing to pay for the content as it’s not really differentiated from the reams of other content that is accessible online for free. Plus, if you really want to get paid-for content for free, there are always ways in which you can do that, as long as you don’t want immediate access to it.
So, will The Times new website help in its objective of securing enough paying customers? Well, on the face of it the new website is pretty good, it’s been relatively well received, but when asked if you would pay for it, the majority have said `no’. That pretty much tells its own story. The Sunday Times has a loyal following, but the majority of those followers are hardcopy readers, and I don’t feel the Times brand has enough of a loyal following online, nor is the new website embracing the opportunities to become `social’ although it will likely gain revenue at least until more of the UK’s national newspapers follow suit and there is then a more level playing field.
To help understand this change in policy from The Times, and more accurately News International, let’s look at what the Pew research* can tell us about user behaviour.
The headlines from the research include: `News today is a shared, social experience. Half of Americans say they rely on people around them to find out at least some of the news they need to know. 44% of online news users get news at least a few times a week through emails, automatic updates or posts from social networking sites.’
Interestingly the stories and issues that gain traction in social media differ substantially from those that lead in the mainstream press, Roy Greenslade covers of this issue in more detail.
However, social media stories also differ greatly from each other. `Of the 29 weeks that Pew tracked on all three social platforms, blogs, Twitter and YouTube shared the same top story just once. That was the week of June 15-19, 2009, when the protests that followed the Iranian elections led on all three.’
`Across all three social platforms, though, attention spans are brief. Just as news consumers don’t stay long on any website; social media doesn’t stay long on any one story. On blogs, 53% of the lead stories in a given week stay on the list no more than three days. On Twitter that is true of 72% of lead stories, and more than half (52%) are on the list for just 24 hours.’
Interestingly, most of those top weekly stories differ dramatically from what is receiving attention in the traditional press. Social media tend to home in on stories that get much less attention in the mainstream press.
So, how does this help us to reflect on The Times decision? Well, it shows that the public are choosing to consume their news in whichever way fits them, by whichever method or platform suits them.
Increasingly the confines of traditional media outlets, and in many cases that includes their websites, are being shunned simply because we all have choice and many of the alternatives are more flexible for social interaction online. Sure, traditional sources are important to get the details on breaking events, but on a day-to-day basis, we chose our outlets according to our need.
This doesn’t mean traditional media will die, and its authority still carries huge weight – much more so than the individual social outlets, but the fact of the matter is the consumption of media has changed, and until traditional media outlets realise that, evolve their offerings to meet this change and stop trying to cram traditional media methods into the digital world they are going to continue to struggle. It’s not the reader that needs to change to suit the platform, it’s the platform that needs to change, go beyond its own confines and change to meet the reader’s environment.
If you would like to hear more from The Times, you can listen to the Radio 4 interview with James Harding, editor, speaking earlier this week.
*The Pew Research Center, Project for Excellence in Journalism study examined the blogosphere and social media by tracking the news linked to on millions of blogs and social media pages tracked by Icerocket and Technorati from Jan.19, 2009, through Jan. 15, 2010. It also tracked the videos on YouTube’s news channel for the same period. It measured Twitter by tracking news stories linked to within tweets as monitored by Tweetmeme from June 15, 2009, through January 15, 2010.