26 February 2012

I can’t help feeling, at a time when it’s clear that more people are reading news online and the circulation of newspapers is declining, that The Sun is investing in an already declining market by going live this weekend with their first Sunday newspaper.

I blogged last year about the Times’ paywall and how it affected the sheer numbers of people that were suddenly banned from reading the articles published on thetimes.co.uk website. I was amongst hundreds of thousands who never returned. Convinced that the “content is more important than the delivery”, the leaders at The Times insisted that all readers need to be paying a fee for the news it provides. Overnight, the readership was slashed to a fraction of its original traffic.

And whilst it never worked and the traffic levels today still pale into insignificance compared to what they used to be, the management at The Times now find it hard to open up the news to everyone again as it will appear as though they failed. So, they are damned if they do, they are damned if they don’t. It’s easier to hide the numbers. However, this strategy can’t last forever as businesses that advertise on the site will eventually realise that their advertising is less effective than other sites they advertise with. That is both the beauty and the beast of advertising on such a transparent medium as the net. There’s no brand building, it’s relevant visitors and conversions that count.

So, where have all the readers gone? Do they not get the news anymore?

The answer is simple; they just moved to one of the abundance of free alternatives.  And the argument that “people will always pay for quality” clearly doesn’t stack up when there are credible alternatives available like the BBC and a myriad of Apps for free.

I had a meeting with the owner of EN magazine Martin Regan, who has taken the other route and chosen to discontinue a really great publication EN Magazine in favour of a website version. Whilst I can’t help feeling a little nostalgic, I think he is wise. What was interesting though was that, during our conversation, we spoke of the importance of well-written content and the challenges in today’s fast-paced news environment to provide original content, especially as the demand for a paid magazine which fuels the reporters is in decline.

So, how do you create the balance?

Well, there are news websites out there with incredibly successful models. “The Register” for example is a tech publication that boasts more than six million unique users worldwide. Approximately 1.5 million of these are in the UK and 3 million in the US, with a further 0.5 million in Canada and Australia. They turn over a good few million and they are growing. Why is no one copying this model?

Their journalists write articles relating to technical subjects and consequently attract readers interested in the same. This is a match made in heaven for advertisers selling similar products and services. As a business owner, I am much more interested in relevant sites. However, I am well aware that it’s a numbers game, so the sites with the largest traffic win my business. This is why Google and Facebook do so well. They create sites with millions of users that are free to use, and charge hefty sums to those wanting to advertise on them. Why suffocate a site with a paywall?

Yet, when talking with Martin he said something I have heard a number of times from other journalists and people in the press. “It’s the content that’s important and not the delivery. People will seek out great content.”

It is something that all journalists pride themselves on, the quality of their work, and why not? I am a writer of music and I take great pride in every composition I have made, so I understand the passion behind what he says. However, it hit me like a thunderbolt when I realised that within that statement lies the answer.

Why have so many people in the press got it wrong when it comes to online delivery? Rupert Murdoch spent billions acquiring popular websites with large volumes of traffic, yet never managed to amalgamate them. So many people have failed, yet when you look at their business pedigree it just doesn’t make sense, especially when you consider that the newspaper men built the modern world as we know it. They were the pioneers of their generation and they controlled the Western World with their print.

Yet how can these same people say that “delivery is not important.” They have clearly forgotten the hundreds of millions of pounds invested in the News industry, the sophistication of the printing presses and the “delivery” of newspapers to every door across the globe. How much thought went into the creation and continual improvement of that empire? A colossal amount; so much so it doesn’t bear thinking about.

I rented the old Express building when we first set up UKFast and the sheer size of the buildings and the printing presses with their miles of snaking production lines is imprinted on my brain for ever. Yet how much time and effort went into understanding the delivery of the internet? The same as they have invested into their industry? I am confident when I say that, from my experience of discussing the internet with a number of proprietors of well known publications, they didn’t do anything like the same amount of work.

The fact that a number of owners handed off the website part of their business to IT managers because their understanding of  the internet was better only compounded the problem. Their focus was not on the user (like the journalist honing his craft) – they are focussed on cost savings and efficiency and convenience.

And isn’t an online newspaper a creative outlet, just like a paper version? Doesn’t it, therefore, require a creative approach?

So, the delivery and user experience tended to take a back seat and all the focus remained on the front edge, creating the articles and managing the news, whilst the news grinds to a halt online, if you can even find it!

Sadly though, users visiting websites are less than forgiving and they simply vote with their mouse, clicking somewhere else where they can get everything that little bit faster, slicker, easier.

So, if you are reading this and you own a newspaper or a website that is trying to attract interested readers – because, after all, isn’t that what we are all trying to do – take a lead from Facebook, Google, Twitter and some of the other successful giants of the web. They invest as much in the infrastructure as they do in the content and the running of the business.

If you view the internet as a way to make money without the overheads of a shop or a traditional business, it is likely you will either become unstuck or, at best, never fulfil your real potential.

Do yourself and your customers a favour and come and get a dedicated server or cloud platform from UKFast. I have yet to see someone regret buying a faster and more efficient delivery mechanism.

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