Friday, June 22, 2012

Newspaper decline, market segmentation & a reality check

I'm very tired tonight, so just a short ramble. I don't have time to check the links to my own writing. I will try to do so later.

In Australia, the print media is largely controlled by two groups, the Murdoch controlled News limited and  Fairfax Media. Both have announced major restructuring in the face of the internet challenge. I have a folder of press clippings on the detail of the restructuring - a folder of press clippings? Doesn't that sound quaint and old fashioned! However, here I want to focus not on the broad, but on two specific aspects of the changes taking place.

The first is the very local.

In all this stuff you read about the decline of newspapers, about the rise of the internet and the challenge it poses, you will see broad statistics used. Metrics they often call them in management. In considering metrics, remember that metrics don't buy newspapers, groups don't buy newspapers, cohorts don't buy newspapers. People buy newspapers.

Why do people buy newspapers or, for that matter, stop buying newspapers?  They do so for personal reasons that vary from individual to individual. The metrics so often used may reflect the results in particular groups, say the under twenty fives, but they don't really explain why. Further, the groups selected by their nature tend to be fairly broad, so the results are in fact averages. You actually have to segment to to a very high degree to understand what is happening. I doubt the media organisations are doing that. 

One of the critical things in the choices that people make is the presence of alternatives. People have plenty of choices when it comes to what we might call general news. This is where competition really bites. The more localised the news, the fewer the alternatives. That is why in Fairfax the Sydney Morning Herald or the Age are bleeding, the regional papers still making money.

Once people have many choices, then segmentation becomes very critical. Just what is the unique edge that will persuade people to read you whether in print or online. Not just people in general, but people as specific individuals.

This is why the Fairfax changes are likely to fail. They have ignored both localism and specific unique identifiers.

Take the Newcastle Herald or the Canberra Times. In the case of the Herald, the changes are likely to dilute the specific parochial Newcastle elements that have always given that paper its edge against the competition. In the case of the Canberra Times with its unique readership and multi-role as a source of alternative information in a company town whose business is Government, they are likely to drive the paper back to the very local and then fail because that can't be delivered better by the Times than, say, local ABC.

The second aspect I want to comment on in is naivety, at least as I see it, of some of my blogging colleagues. Here I want to quote from Ken Parish's Australian media and creative destruction. Ken wrote in part:

Serious op-ed journalism and analysis can be and already are done far better by serious bloggers and alternative media outlets like The Conversation (in effect a blog for academics sponsored by the G8 universities), Crikey, New Matilda, Online Opinion and the Global Mail, not to mention ABC Unleashed, than by the commercial mainstream media. As a fairly elite taste, serious op-ed journalism probably doesn’t need any more outlets than that. Time-poor potential readers (i.e. most people) wanting to identify the best material from these sources but averse to using a feed reader can always subscribe to the Twitter feeds of keen observers like Ken Parish, Nicholas Gruen and Don Arthur. There’s no point lamenting the deterioration of such content in the mainstream media, because the average punter never read it anyway.

I read most of the sources that Ken quotes, and I can tell you now that they are not a substitute for the serious analysis done in the mainstream print media. It's partly a matter of scale of coverage, equally as much that there is actually a lot of badly written stuff in the alternative media.

Don't get me wrong. I often wax lyrical about some of the writing of my fellow bloggers. Yet the reality is that our fellow on-line writers actually suffer from many of the same constraints as do the writers in the main stream media. There is only so much time to write. The more you research, the less you can write. So regular writers including this one find it hard to maintain consistent, high quality output.

Many of us try to leverage by cross-referencing fellow writers with something to say so that we get a compounding effect. Even then, most of us are actually dependent on the main stream media for original source material that we then build on.

Where do I go next in all this? Well, that's a matter for another post. I'm out of time tonight! 


Winton Bates said...

I will be interested to see where you take this, Jim.

If reading of newspapers is declining, blogs etc. do not provide a good substitute for quality journalism and serious coverage of political issues on TV and radio is now virtually limited to the ABC,what implicatons does this have for the political system?

The first point that comes to mind is that party leaders have a fairly strong disincentive to take up an issue unless their positions can be summarized in about three words or less. That seems to fit pretty well with what we observe.

The second point is that the political circus becomes more like a real circus. For example, we even saw Tony Abbott performing some real acrobatics the other day.

Evan said...

Hi Jim, looking forward to the next piece.

The point about scale is an interesting one. The challenge is coming up with the next level up I think that doesn't just become uninteresting (the plight of the MSM).

This leads to reflection on the likes of GetUp! and such.

As to research, I guess this is the question of funding. It could be the job of academics but they don't get points for publishing outside specialist journals with (usually) tiny readership.

Jim Belshaw said...

My thinking is very cloudy here Winton. The market delivers too people who will pay. The mass media got money from advertisers because they could deliver a mass audience. Free to air TV held its share of advertising for a long while despite declining share because it was still the only mass medium.

The internet offers stuff for free. It also conditions the way people see things - the medium is the message and all that. Other factors are important to, such as the broader rise of visual. Again, the medium is the message.

If the print media, the main source of broader coverage including more reflective coverage, collapses, what might it mean?

First, the only generally accessible mass media source providing information rather than just entertainment will probably become publicly funded broadcasters. Expect more political controls.

Secondly, you can probably expect a skew in the availability of news and information since this will be mainly available just to those who can pay. Historically, one of the things about the print media has been the way in which a single paper might be read by so many people beyond the person who purchased it. That will stop.

Thirdly, expect highly sophisticated and complex information management as those with money and messages create mechanisms to monitor and work across multiple segmented channels. We have seen this already.

The print press at all its levels was a remarkable democratisation instrument for it gave a voice to individuals, groups and communities in a way never seen before. Can the internet do the same thing? I doubt it.

Winton Bates said...

I think the internet can do all that and a lot more. But the transition will take a few decades.There are a lot of people younger than us who will never have an internet connection. You may enjoy this video clip if you haven't seen it already.

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