A few wishes for 2011 (media edition)

By Steve Outing

2010 was such an interesting, eventful year in the media business. But I expect that 2011 is going to bring even more change. Indeed, I hope for more change. Here are some of my wishes for the news and media worlds for the year ahead:

I wish… for Murdoch to fail, quickly

Here's why...Hey, if GOP House Leader Mitch McConnell can wish for President Obama’s entire presidency to fail in order to advance his own conservative causes, then I can wish for News International tycoon Rupert Murdoch to fail in just one segment of his media empire. I hope that his “hard paywall” experiments on such newspaper-website titles as The Times, Sunday Times, and News of the World fail spectacularly, and fast. The exaggerated paywall (users see nothing but homepage headlines without paying) is a dumb idea when comparable news content is available free from equally credible web competitors (i.e., the UK’s other national newspapers’ websites, the BBC site, etc.). Let Murdoch prove once and for all that the small number of paying subscribers he’ll win over with the hard paywall will nowhere near make up for the loss in ad revenue that will result as the sites’ low traffic numbers causes advertisers to go elsewhere, AND the loss of some of the papers’ best editorial talent as top journalists despair of their loss of influence and get tired of speaking to a small audience.


I wish… for NYTimes.com’s “metered” paywall to flounder

Here's why...The New York Times Co.’s decision to put a “metered paywall” on NYTimes.com is not an awful decision in the way that is Murdoch’s “hard paywall.” Most infrequent NYT web visitors won’t even notice, since they won’t view enough articles in a month to even know it’s there. But regular, heavy users of NYTimes.com, I expect, will split on whether to pay up or not. For those deciding to pay, the Times well may see decent revenue numbers — and declare the experiment a success. BUT, a good percentage of heavy users of NYTimes.com will decide that they won’t pay, but will switch to a credible alternative once they’ve used up their free NYTimes.com quota — say, WashingtonPost.com, which has vowed (for now) to stay free on the web with its news content. If enough of those people decide that the Post, for example, is a good-enough alternative to the NY Times online, then NYT will prove the loser, despite decent revenue numbers from the metered-paywall approach. I hope that this become obvious enough, quickly, that NYTimes.com tweaks its pay strategy to something softer-still than the metered paywall model.


I wish… news publishers will wake up to the membership model, and learn to SELL

Here's why...A principal reason that I don’t like paywalls for (most, not all!) news websites is that it’s an attitude of unreasonable publisher entitlement. “You should pay us because we deserve it for the quality news we produce, which isn’t cheap and serves to protect democracy!” I MUCH prefer a strategy that says, “Pay us because we are providing you with a product/service that is valuable to you, and here are the wonderful benefits you’ll get by becoming a paying customer!”

I remain bullish on the “premium membership” model for news websites. I.e., keep non-niche news free online (since it’s been free for many years already, and good luck changing consumer attitudes) and create a program (or tier of programs) with extra benefits for the paying customer. I’m not going to go deep on what benefits in this short article, but the idea is to have something special to SELL to the large audience that’s already visiting a news website that’s free. If the news industry put some serious brainpower and resources into figuring out what lots of people would pay for instead of what they should, and got really serious about marketing and selling, that makes so much more sense than the alternative message that we see from too many news publishers: “Pay because we deserve to get your money for what we do.” This will require that news publishers actually work their butts off to sell, rather than sit back and expect people to fork over money “just because” everyone should support journalism. … No they don’t, as long as comparable free alternatives are a click or two away. (If a news publisher’s content has no credible free online competition, fine: go for your paywall.)


I wish… that Wikileaks and mainstream news providers learn to get along

Here's why...One of the most disgusting media outbursts of 2011, for me at least, was CNN’s Wolf Blitzer railing against Wikileaks’ disclosure of classified documents and basically begging the U.S. government to better prevent journalists — like him! — from getting access to state secrets. That was just the most blatant display of much of the mainstream (i.e., corporate) news media painting Wikileaks as a villain despite not breaking any laws and uncovering a chestful of government, military, and corporate wrongdoing and mistakes in its short history. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald cites numerous other examples. As many other pundits have pointed out, if our government and powerful financial institutions succeed in putting Wikilieaks founder Julian Assange in an American jail and shutting down the ability of Wikileaks to receive money from supporters through the financial system, respectively, those will be terrible precedents for the rest of the press. If Wikileaks can be banished and censored, then so can mainstream news organizations that similarly unearth state and business wrongdoing that powerful interests want squelched.

My wish is for corporate-owned media institutions’ leaders is to grow a spine and support Wikileaks, because a bad outcome for Assange and his organization (what Jay Rosen aptly describes as the “first stateless news organization”) will mean bad times ahead for the rest of the press and new powers by government officials to censor embarrassing and bad stuff that they don’t want revealed.

And Wikileaks is but the first of the new genre of whistle-blower enablers. Even if Wikileaks were to go away (which is doubtful), its successors will multiply. Instead of viewing this as a negative development, I wish that more journalists and especially news executives would see the whistle-blower sites as partners and an increasingly useful tool in helping them do their jobs. Revealing state secrets can be done in an irresponsible manner which does real harm. But Wikileaks and its ilk working in concert with news organizations can reveal institutional wrongdoing in a way that reveals misdeeds and protects secrets that legitimately need to be kept from the public.


I wish… that many newspaper executives will retire

Here's why...Let’s face the facts. The newspaper industry has had over a decade and a half to figure out how to transition to the digital age, and overall it’s failed miserably. I don’t place the blame as much on those who work or have worked on the digital or new-media side of newspaper companies, but rather on top newspaper executives too often unwilling to listen to their digital managers’ advice and make bold decisions that would have set their companies on paths toward profiting from the digital transformation of the last decade and a half, even if it meant hurting the core print product. To those still sitting in the executive suites, retire already and let someone else make the hard decisions.

This is not an age issue, for there are some older news executives with attitudes open to radical transformation of their businesses. Young or old, newspaper CEOs who still spend the majority of their time on the print product should go. Boards of directors: Why aren’t you forcing these people out?


I wish… that the cost of developing mobile apps will fall greatly

Here's why...Too many news publishers seem to think that the tablet (especially Apple’s iPad) will provide them with a magic business model to make up for the failure of the web to adequately fund news organizations as they’ve been accustomed. They can do this, the thinking goes, because creating news apps for digital tablets is an expensive proposition, and allows them to create digital “editions” that are but modernized versions of what they’ve produced for many years. And consumers have exhibited a willingness to pay for apps, so the concept of the iPad app as the modern-day magazine or newspaper holds appeal to news folk who cling to old ways of thinking.

But there’s a major problem looming. Developing sophisticated apps will, in time, become easy and inexpensive enough that anyone will be able to create a professional-looking mobile app to compete with apps from big-name media brands. Just as blogging platforms (Blogger, Typepad, etc.) and no-cost open-source content management systems (e.g., WordPress, Drupal, etc.) allowed anyone to become a publisher and, with enough talent, to produce web publications that rival the quality of traditional media companies, the coming wave of simple mobile-app production tools (including tools to create HTML5 mobile websites with the same capabilities as stand-alone apps) will repeat history for publishing to smartphones and tablets. The sooner this happens, the sooner that the news industry will be forced to figure out a viable business model to support production of serious journalism by well-staffed newsrooms.


I wish… that non-profit investigative news organizations have a GREAT year

Here's why...Count me as one who believes that, by large measure on some of the biggest issues of our time, the American press has failed. As explained in yesterday’s blog post, the trend seems to be that a weakened and smaller American news media has gotten too close to being friend of those in power rather than adversary, especially among national media. That would explain many celebrity journalists railing against Wikileaks, which is doing the job that they should be doing. My hope is that the wave of non-profit investigative-reporting entities now scrambling to find sustainable business models will stop this trend, and steer all of the news media back to its proper adversarial role with the powerful individuals and institutions that dominate American culture.

What are your media wishes for 2011?

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!