The Media and the Barbell Problem
March 23, 2013 | 8:55 am
By Joanna Cabot
I read a great article today by Matthew Ingram where he explains the current difficulties facing the news media as a ‘barbell’ problem–entities on either side of the barbell are going to be just fine, he argues. It’s the people in the middle who are going to get squeezed!
Ingram’s theory is this: If you are a top gun, like, say, the New York Times, you’ll be fine, because you have both resources to fund new ventures and cash flow to wait it out until you see which of those ventures stick. Similarly, if you are a small-town paper–the other end of the barbell–where “forces of the Web haven’t made themselves felt as strongly and local shopping flyers are probably still a pretty good business,” you’ll be fine too, because you haven’t got the competition. The New York Times isn’t putting out shopping flyers for your customers, so you still have a business model.
But those in the middle are the ones who have the problems, and these news organizations obviously make up the largest section of the market. They can’t make enough off a paywall, and don’t have enough to invest in new and innovative models. So, what are they going to do?
Ingram’s concern for these markets are very business-minded–he talks about sponsored content, pension and union obligations, scalable models and so forth. But the bottom line, as even he admits, is this:
“If all the things that have subsidized that kind of journalism have been removed–the car ads and travel writing and so on–all these papers are left with is the kind of content that advertisers aren’t interested in and readers don’t want to pay for. What then?”
I think that question is exactly what newspapers, magazines and mid-size markets need to focus on. I’ve seen some interesting examples–the Toronto Star has had some success with their new eReads series, which expands popular human-interest features into e-books with bonus content. I like that idea a lot. But then, they’ve also outsourced all of their page production and laid off more than 50 people in the process.
Their two chief competitors, The Globe & Mail and the National Post, are both experimenting with paywall schemes to mixed effect. The issue is that these newspapers have specialized in, as Ingram puts it, “the kind of content that advertisers aren’t interested in and readers don’t want to pay for.” Sure, I may shell out a buck or two for a mini-book on a topic that interests me. But nobody is relying on these sources solely for general news anymore, because free general news is so easy to find.
The devil’s advocate argument to that, of course, is that even that news costs money to report on, and if everyone started charging for it, then nobody would be able to get it for free. But I don’t think that’s true anymore. Did anybody not hear about the new pope? Does anyone really need the Star to tell them about traffic conditions or movie schedules when there are apps that can report on these in real time? I have an app that tracks the buses on my chosen routes via GPS and tells me exactly when they’ll be at my stop. I have an another that not only tells me movie times but lets me order tickets (and collect loyalty points while I do) without even leaving the listing page. Who needs a paper for that?
Or take the big winter storm we had here in Toronto just before the March break as a perfect case study. Let’s assume we don’t have newspapers (the Beloved and I do not) and didn’t hear about it that way. Let’s assume too that we don’t watch television (also true) and so missed their bulletins. Let’s assume that we missed the radio reports that day (I take public transit and usually read the whole way). And let’s also assume that somehow we managed to escape the chatter of co-workers who were better informed. At the end of it all, we had my stepfather calling me at 7 p.m. to ask me if I had bottles of water in the fridge because of the big storm that was coming. By the time the first flakes fell, I promise you, every person in the city knew it was coming, newspaper or not!
There is no easy solution. But I do like Ingram’s metaphor and I hope some of those middle guys will find ways to edge themselves up to the higher end so they’ll be safe.