Online tools and resources that enable large-scale participation and media sharing such as Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia have been adopted into regular use by hundreds of millions of people in the last three years - perhaps because they enable people to collaborate, manage complexity and find information more efficiently than they would be able to without these tools. In South Africa and other emergent markets, mobile phones have been similarly used to not only enable one-to-one communications, but to enable learning, banking, networking, healthcare and access to news.
It is in this context of cheap, on-demand, real-time, and often social media access that newspapers are struggling to retain market share. Quite obviously, a new value proposition needs to be identified, given that the competitive landscape has changed along with consumer expectations.
In this post I will propose that the core value proposition of newspapers is intrinsically tied to what I see as the most pressing challenge of media consumers today: conserving time while maximizing reward.
We will look at three key themes that I believe will distinguish successful newspapers in the coming decade:
- Attention as an Asset
- Usability as a Differentiator
- Free and Fee
Attention as an Asset
The explosion in media types available, and of-course in the amount and variety of content, has created thousands or millions of niche media tastes. Media consumers today are faced with a mind-boggling array of content to choose from. Their challenge is not finding news and information, but finding news and information that fits their needs and lifestyles.
Most media consumers today are operating in a form of perpetual attention deficit: there is simply more content available to them than they could possibly attend to. So, people have books they’d love to read, but don’t; movies they’d love to watch, but don’t; newspapers they’d love to read, but don’t. The media that goes unattended to is not necessarily of an inferior quality, but somehow it doesn’t fit into the lifestyle of the person that misses it.
According to the polymath Nobel laureate, Herbert Simon:
in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it
The concept of an attention scarcity sits uncomfortably juxtaposed with the industrial model of news production. Information is intrinsically valuable in the industrial model because it is relatively scarce, exclusive and hierarchical. It makes sense then, to build empires around a particular access channel that is exclusive and popular - such as print. However, once information becomes freely available on the internet it may be easily accessed and shared by anyone who can operate a search engine and send an email. Thus, in sectors where information is abundant and available, the only ‘cost’ of information is the time and effort that it takes to engage with it.
The good news for the media in all of this is that businesses in virtually all consumer-facing sectors are facing a similar rise in competitors. They too operate in a marketplace driven by demand for thinly spread consumer attention. Media in general, being the purveyors of Attention, stand to benefit from this if they can effectively present advertising and other commercial content in a way that consumers appreciate and attend to.
In order to successfully adapt to this new economy, newspapers may need to start emphasising Attention, over Content. By this I mean that consumers will be drawn to news sources that are able to add value to the information in ways that enhance their experience of it - through having a more trustworthy brand, effective design, accessibility, community and engagement for example.
The quality of Attention is determined by the intensity of its focus. In other words, the more it excludes to concentrate on the matter at hand, the better its quality. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observes that our nervous systems are only capable of processing 110 bytes of information per second. We therefore have a limited physiological capacity to process information. Concentrating on someone giving an average presentation, for example, consumes around 60 bytes of that capacity and it is what makes it difficult for one to concentrate on more than two voices at a time (Shannon, 1948)1.
Thus it follows that moving towards cheaper news prices (free in many cases) and more advertising may be adversely affecting the quality of reader’s attention. A lower quality of attention may translate into a lower quality of experience for the reader, and hence less likelihood of a repeat encounter with the offending news outlet.
Usability as a Differentiator
For many people, the ‘instinctive’ response in the face of all the variety of content available to them is to go faster, multitask, and spend more time engaging with media. Even the most casual observer would notice, for example, the compulsive engagement of smartphone users with their devices.
Newspapers may need to start focusing more on the holistic experience of news consumption in the context of their readers’ lifestyles. On a simple level, this may mean changing the ways news is laid out and written, as well as ensuring a seamless brand experience across other channels such as internet, mobile phones and e-readers.
Herbert Simon’s research (1996, 143-144) points out that designers of under-utilised information systems incorrectly represented their design problem as information scarcity rather than attention scarcity, and as a result they built systems that excelled at providing more and more information to people, when what was really needed were systems that excelled at filtering out unimportant or irrelevant information.
Simple ways of helping people to filter irrelevant information can be applied to print newspapers. For example, The Daily Maverick, a new online publication based in South Africa makes navigating it’s email newsletter simpler by formatting informative article abstracts into three useful sub-categories:
- “While you were sleeping” (news from the world that happened overnight);
- “Coming up today” (important events for the day ahead); and
- “In case you missed it” (the previous day’s news that missed the last publication deadline).
These categories would be different for publications with different readerships, but in this case they fit perfectly into The Daily Maverick’s value proposition to make their reader “the smartest person in the room” by equipping them with tidbits of news to spark conversation.
In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Professor Barry Schwartz asserts that “too many choices can paralyze people into inaction, and cause them to be dissatisfied with even good decisions”. To build on that idea, I would suggest that strong brands help reduce the cognitive dissonance that media consumers may experience when faced with the overwhelming variety of content from various outlets. To illustrate this, I would cite Apple as a brand that has so effectively distinguished it’s brand that to many people their choice of which laptop to buy may amount simple to “do I want a Macbook or Macbook Pro” (as an Apple fan, that was certainly my experience).
Free and Fee
Few people would argue that newspapers shouldn’t operate online. The online news channel, along with online advertising and payments continue to grow even as print readership and advertising revenues decline.
However, in the online environment content is abundant. When faced with the choice of marginally better content for a fee, or good-enough content for free, they tend to choose the free content.
Much news content online is serendipitously encountered - consumers haven’t gone out looking for it specifically, but have been referred to it by a peer or encountered it via a Search Engine. It is difficult to get people to pull out their credit cards to read an article they have encountered by chance and with cursory interest.
In the case of serendipitous encounters with news, it would be a mistake to hide content behind a password protected “walled garden”. The main argument against this is perhaps that Google and other search engines will not index password protected content, so a significant channel of new readership will be foregone.
On the other hand, the challenge with completely free content is that it tends to rely on more advertising and advertorials. The problem with this is two-fold: firstly, it may lower the quality of the reader’s experience, and secondly, it may begin to infringe on editorial and journalistic independence.
There have been alternate calls for newspapers to go free or to continue charging fees, whether in print or online. I would argue for a blended approach, often called Freemium pricing.
Freemium pricing works with two basic pricing levels: free and premium. Free content is used to attract attention and showcase the product. Premium content is exclusive and may offer greater access, functionality, or a better quality of experience.
In the context of the Attention Economy, we would assert that all the newspaper’s content should be freely available online, since content is no longer a distinctive value proposition for newspapers. However, consumers should be charged for features that enhance their experience of the content - for example, to remove adverts, to receive the print edition, the mobile application, or even the email newsletter.
Consumers of free news may have lower expectations of free content and may make advertising viable. However, serious news consumers would be willing to pay for a better quality reading experience. A blanket approach to either make content free or paid for is shortsighted and limiting.
I would assert that media consumption is not only driven by the quality of content, but also the quality of the experience in engaging with the content. Increasingly, considerations such as branding, integration with social-communities, personalisation and elegance need to be integrated into the core value proposition of newspapers.
News content should be free and easy to share, but a small percentage of users who are prepared to pay for a better quality experience of the content may ensure the continued viability and freedom of the press.
(This piece was originally written with Elaine Rumboll for the World Association of Newspapers' project "Charting the Course for Newspaper Companies,” a compilation of visions for the future of newspaper companies)