Big Media is at the mercy of the tech giants and it’s their own fault

How are changes in technology and audience behaviour affecting news values, shapes and structures?

This is a question I have been asked to answer. Well, not answer, but at least research the issues enough to stimulate some debate. So over the course of a few blog posts I intend to share some of what I uncovered and solicit some feedback. Am I on the right track? You decide.

I think the best place to start is where technology in journalism is, and where it could or should be. I really liked this extract from Jeff Jarvis’ new book Public Parts and I think it gets to heart of the problem with what most media companies are trying.

Today, publishers as a breed have so far tried little more than reproducing their old content and business models in new forms, from CD-ROMs to the web to iPads. It was the same in the Renaissance. The earliest publishers made books to mimic the work of scribes, even designing their typefaces to look like scribes’ handwriting. Printing was promoted as automated writing. “They appear not to have perceived the printed book as a fundamentally different form, but rather as a manuscript book that could be produced with greater speed and convenience,” Leah Marcus says in “Cyberspace Renaissance.” They didn’t yet see the possibilities.

Matthew Ingram at GigaOM remarks on the pride media companies are taking in creating new Facebook applications.

But there’s another aspect of these launches that’s troubling, and that’s the pride so many publishers seem to take in having produced a Facebook app, as though it’s the pinnacle of media innovation.

and

But if all you are doing is creating widgets for people who live inside a specific walled garden, then I think you are missing the boat.

This is part of a larger worrying trend.  Media companies are relying on technology companies for solutions to their problems. There were no doubt “Hallelujahs!” from media proprietors  as Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad and Jeff Bezos the Kindle. But where is the innovation from within?

Amazon did not sit around and wait for the decline of its book selling business. It took the initiative and created its own hardware and content ecosystem, ensuring its own longterm future. Where are the media companies doing this?

By relying on technology companies, media companies are setting themselves up for a great fall. This was perfectly illustrated when Apple decided it wanted to take 30% of the subscription revenue for publications on the iPad. Companies had to pay up or remove subscriptions and in-app purchases from their apps.

This video from 1994 was produced by American newspaper giants Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy Company). They had their own design lab working on technologies that are remarkably similar to the tablet devices of today. What happened to this innovation and foresight?

The iPad Express

Yesterday I stumbled across a video preview of the Daily Express’ new iPad app on the Press Gazette website.

http://www.youtube.com/v/x3ff4LJzRzg&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0

After watching the video some initial criticisms came to mind which I tweeted.

  • Firstly I don’t think that a music player is all that relevant to a newspaper app and will be irrelevant when OS 4.0 comes out with multitasking.
  • I also didn’t think that using the iPad as a way of presenting the paper edition’s pages was particularly innovative and in fact rather lazy.

Almost immediately I received a reply from the developer of the app @PageSuite and we began a dialogue. Ben Edwards, marketing manager at PageSuite emailed me and discussed some of the issues I raised.

Ben said:

…appreciate your feedback and support the notion that some publishers should (&will) further utilise iPad functionality with interactivity…

These will be monthly titles with large investment and one of the top 20 or so brands globally. You are a journalist student, so will understand the publishing industry – it’s extremely challenging times, resources are limited, subs & ad revenue strategies are being challenged. How do you maximise the opportunities your existing content affords, without substantial investment in resource, skilled labour, time and technology? We have publishing clients who aren’t in this position and can commit to the most interactive apps you could imagine… but the purpose of this email is to indicate this will not be the majority.

Our publishing clients already generate print editions, e-editions and now iPhone & iPad apps… because it works i.e. revenues increase, engagement increases, customer data & brands… increase. Our Metro iPhone app – a print facsimile – 150k downloads, 16min av. Time on app, 500’000 daily page impressions.

To give you some perspective, we work with 19 out of the top 20 newspaper publishers in the UK, 40 of the largest in the US, the largest in Canada & Brazil… Magazines too – only a limited number will design iPad apps for that platform – the majority will use RSS, XML feeds, print facsimiles and video content but presented in an engaging format (targeting their demographic).

And really it was the last sentence that addressed my criticisms. I don’t there there’s a one size fits all approach for the news media on tablet devices like the iPad. The Daily Express is far from being a bastion of great online content, to be blunt its website stinks.

But the iPad can actually offer something to the Daily Express demographic, which is the paper that they know and love in the convenient form factor of the iPad. Would this solution suit the Guardian reader? No, not at all but maybe the Express has understood their market for once.

Forgive me for lazily stereotyping the Express reader, but they aren’t exactly young and not exactly modern. The iPad allows them to intuitively zoom in on articles and rend the text larger than the newspaper they buy which can help with readers with poor eyesight. The interface offers a few viewing options but the one that initially drew the most criticism from me is the traditional page format and maybe that makes sense to Express readers?

What’s certainly interesting is the notion that the iPad versions of newspapers might surpass the usage of the web versions especially among the more traditional media and less web-savvy users.