I often feel that there’s a general sense of ‘last mover advantage’ when it comes to Irish media.
Unlike most other industries, there’s a strange lack of innovation, despite the obvious need to evolve or die.
There’s a general malaise of ambivalence, inertia or downright unwillingness to change, a sort of fog that hangs over the entire industry.
While worldwide, we’ve seen innovations like country wide paywalls, brands moving into streaming, podcasting events & native advertising, data visualisation, multimedia journalism and plenty more new media risks, our tiny little market has been devoid of that, by and large.
The fabled ‘paywall’ has been mooted for a long while by both of the big daily hitters, Irish Independent and Irish Times. Both have announced and seemingly subsequently rowed back on paywalls previously.
Yesterday, a story in the Sunday Times revealed the Times’ big plans.
The ‘Digital Path’ will look to set the agenda for the future, and Hugh Linehan (a noted thinker on the area of new media in Ireland) seems to have moved into a new role to oversee this new era.
Many are skeptical, partly because of the ‘boy who cried wolf’ angle of the IT having previously mooted a paywall, but mainly because of this huge departure into the paywall ether.
Only Sunday Business Post and Farmers Journal have attempted such a large scale project in Ireland previously to my knowledge. The likes of Sports for Business, and particularly Skift are other good examples of how taking a niche and building credibility within that space can be very effective.
There’s no doubt this is a risk. The Irish Times could probably sit pretty, collecting print and ad revenue for a decade or so yet without innovating. Of course, the time will come when digital ad revenue will eat up print revenue, and the even bigger risk is that this era comes sooner than we realise.
As I’ve suggested on this blog before, digital ad revenue just isn’t, generally speaking, making up for the loss in circulation and print ad revenue. Though there are exceptions.
Programmatic ad buying, the rise of social sites (who account for over 50% of ad spend), the rise of mobile browsing (meaning it’s harder to monetise content) and a variety of other factors are combining to make a display only model redundant.
So the paper probably realistically had two broad choices:
– Become a true media organisation in a ‘through the line’ sense, to borrow a phrase from advertising. This would involve a move into monetised podcasting, events, live streaming, increased branded supplements and perhaps a part paywall also. It would also be an even bigger risk with an even bigger cost.
– Go for the good old paywall system, and hope to emulate other success stories, whilst not alienating any of your readers.
Worldwide, if you look at the paywall success stories, it’s the ‘high value’ media organisations that have ostensibly been successful. By high value, I’m referring to the perceived value they represent to their user base.
Niche publications will obviously command a smaller potential payment base, but paradoxically will find it much easier, generally, to gain subscribers because of that smaller focus. That’s part of why the Farmers Journal for example has so far been such a success in Ireland.
The bigger orgs, like the NYT and particularly the FT and WSJ have built their walls based upon their standing as high value publishers. The first is obviously journalistically focused, while the FT & WSJ offers market data value that makes them unmissable to the business community.
The gamble here for the I.T. essentially boils down to: ‘Do our readers value what we do enough, or do we have enough legacy status to make readers pay for some, or all of our content?‘ and secondly ‘Can we provide enough value through digital to keep them paying for it?‘
Let’s take the second question.
For too long, and it continues even today, Irish newspapers have looked at digital through a print prism. Blathnaid Healy, another thinker on the topic whom I admire, made the very salient point this morning that the practice of newspapers treating their digital publishing operations as an offshoot or an afterthought is still very much alive and kicking. The I.T. will need to strongly invest in UX, data and digital storytelling tools if they wish to attract a more web savvy demographic to pay. They’ll need to understand their users better than ever before, and to facilitate them as a priority. This perhaps hasn’t been the focus for many newspapers in digital previously.
For example, where’s the Irish ‘Snowfall‘, or the multimedia journalism that we’ve come to expect from exposure to UK and American sites? Imagine what could be done with some of our sporting stories, or the Tuam story for example in multimedia terms? There’s a lot of work to be done in this space.
For me, unbundling should also be at least examined by the ‘Digital Path’ team. I made the point earlier that I would be happy to pay a certain monthly price for access to Keith Duggan, Malachy Clerkin, Ken Early, Jim Caroll, Tom Lyons etc., but there are certainly other parts of the newspaper that I would never, ever read.
Why not offer me a fractured subscription to these parts of the paper only?
That’s just my uneducated tuppence into a very important and interesting announcement.
Of course, there’s a whole other angle to this story, and we’ll probably see more of the nuanced parts of the ‘Digital Path’ unfolding in due course.
But for now, kudos to the Old Dame for taking this step into the unknown for Irish media. I’ll be watching the Irish Times paywall story with serious interest.