Barry vs the bloggers!

National Business Review Owner has announced a subscriber only content service, and caused a big stir online with the comments he made in his letter announcing it.

Now I write for online (today’s column is here – on the shape of Auckland) so Barry is my eventual overlord, so I risk biting the hand that feeds with my comments, but hope it will be a useful contribution. Barry said:

I expect about 20 per cent of our web news to be Subscriber Only Content. The exact ratio will vary as we will be using the category for only the best news stories, scoops and commentary pieces that we post on any one day. Besides the serious issues of the moment the content will include large doses of satire and goings on uncovered by our nosey Private Bin reporters.

As you know, there has been endless discussion for a number of years about the crazy model adopted by newspapers in most parts of the free world in which they pay the enormous costs of running professional newsrooms only to give their content away free – while at the same time slashing newsroom numbers to save money as circulation and advertising revenues fall.

I’m not sure they see it as giving it away free, as some make considerable money from the advertising on their sites. But it is a choice for each media outlet as to whether or not they provide 0%, 80% or 100% of their content online.

And to add to the madness it has been the aggregators that have profited the most from the supply of that free news copy. Worse still the model has spawned a huge band of amateur, untrained, unqualified bloggers who have swarmed over the internet pouring out columns of unsubstantiated “facts” and hysterical opinion.

Most of these “citizen journalists” don’t have access to decision makers and are infamous for their biased and inaccurate reporting on almost any subject under the sun (while invariably criticising professional news coverage whose original material they depend on to base their diatribes).

Now I have a healthy enough ego that I take no offence from the above, as I automatically assume Barry is speaking about everyone else, but not me 🙂

But I do think Barry is overstating the case. Of course there are many many blogs that are rubbish. But they accordingly have littler readership and little influence.

There are however many blogs that provide analysis that can be as good as that you find anywhere.  Paul Walker provides a list of blogs that feature some of the most respected and influential economists in the world as a counter example.

I think the climate for traditional media is very tough, and there is no easy answer. There has been and continues to be a massive change in the role of the traditional media.

Historically, people read newspapers for two reasons – for information/news and for analysis. Th first of those reasons is fading.

15 years ago if you wanted to know what was happening in US politics, your only easy way to know was to read the local newspaper, and browse whatever story they have run in world news from AP. The entire world almost relied on what AP said about US politics. Today you can get information on US political news from hundreds or thousands of sites online.

You used to get a newspaper for the weather. Not I get hourly updates through my browser and/or blackberry – all for free.

I used to get newspapers for cartoons. Now I get Dilbert every day direct.

We used to read what happened in the House the next morning. Now you can read a transcript online by 5.30 pm. If you invest in shares, you no longer need a newspaper to find out the share prices.

We still rely on newspapers for crime reporting, but within a few years we may have live Internet streaming of every courthouse, and may get better information from a few dedicated court bloggers who spend their days and nights following trials.

So as a provider of information, the media monopoly is seriously weakened.

This leaves the other side – the analysis. Now I do think people will pay for good analysis, but in certain areas there is significant competition from online sources.

I rarely buy newspapers any more. The exception is Monday’s Dominion Post. I primarily buy this to see how the Dom Post political team scored the previous week. I value their analysis enough to do so. Hence Barry Colman is not necessarily wrong – some people will pay for good analysis.

But as Paul Walker pointed out, there is some remarkably good free analysis already out there. The best economic debates are now found online. Bernard Hickey and interest.co.nz provide some very good financial analysis. Some bloggers (not all) have as good access to decision makers as journalists.

In my view quality analysis is what people will pay for – either in hard copy, or electronically. Over the next few years fewer and fewer people will pay just for reporting information.

Trans-tasman is a good example of a subscription model that works. People don’t get it for their reporting, but for their analysis and insights.

Cactus Kate blogs at length on the Colman e-mail and concludes:

Colman is charging $89 for the content or “The cost is a little more than 80c a day and I promise you it will be one investment you won’t regret”. Well I wouldn’t if NBR updated it’s content on a daily basis with real content but it doesn’t. So good luck on that, but to blame bloggers for contributing to the model that is forcing him to have to go pay-per-view? A tad silly. For the pay-per-view am I to be reading low paid first-jobbed twenty-something children repeating the news, or will I read serious senior business journos actually breaking stories that matter?

Fortunately Colman has one of the better entrepreneurial brains in the country and is well equipped to come up with something more original and “out there” than this email whinge to justify making 20% of online content “locked” to make his publication profitable and more widely read. After all he’s really, really rich so has proven he knows more about business and turning profits than all bloggers do combined.

We look forward to it.

And that is what it will come down to. People will pay for good analysis, for original breaking of stories, but not for merely repeating of information from primary sources – now that others have access to those primary sources.

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