Reader-centric and paywall-less: the future of journalism is now

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

The digital turning point of The Financial Times

When major media players experiment with new methods, many have a strong feeling of being in the presence of a historic moment due to the symbolic leading power of those who innovate. This is the case of The Financial Times, which a few days ago gave serious “food” for debate and emulation with its choice to radically revise its product, from the way it is packaged to the final result of its production. The newspaper, as reported in a memo from the editor Lionel Barber, has decided to favor its digital version over its paper one, choosing to ‘squeeze’ the newspaper into a single global edition that will be launched in the first half of 2014 (currently it publishes different editions in various countries). There will be a reconfiguration as an in-depth and analysis-based media product, rich in data and graphics, combined with a portal that will focus on the aggregation of internal and external content. The goal of the website will be to add value to the news context on the web and ‘dictate the line’ for the product that will be on news-stands. [tweetable]A newspaper with less news on paper, with reduced production costs and cycles[/tweetable], always faithful to the pursuit of investigative journalism, but with an agenda which will be derived directly from “the web offering – not vice versa”, Roy Greensdale sums up in The Guardian.

The decision is based on the figures of the worldwide average daily circulation of the printed newspaper (about 230,000 copies in August 2013), 15% fewer than in the same month the year before. These numbers justify the change, especially if we consider that, as noted by Barber, the newspaper registers about 100,000 more digital subscribers than print sales, reaching a total (among digital circulation and paid print) of about 600,000 readers. According to Laura Hazard Owen of GigaOm, the digital subscribers would be around 400,000. Andrea Kannapel of The New York Times calls this change [tweetable]the closest thing to a transition from print to all-digital[/tweetable] that has ever been proposed at these levels. Kevin Anderson wonders whether it is time to ask what should a newspaper do in the digital age. This choice – Anderson explains – will not marginalize the newspaper, which will continue to send to print a product able to give its opinion about the most important issues. However, it is evident that the transition is revolutionary and indicative for everyone, and shows how the industry and its leaders still want to meet these challenges to face the future.

Bypassing the paywall

Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian Australia, has tried to answer the question in a lecture in Melbourne. Her speech, transcribed on the website, is [tweetable]a complete and programmatic portrait of the current state of journalism[/tweetable], of the relationship with users and the centrality of the readers, of how the web has transformed news advertising and its flows. Her idea of news does not impose the newspaper-structure onto the web, but becomes the interpreter of what she calls “the web’s ecosystem”, both in structural – with an ‘open’ offer – and “psychological” terms. It is not enough anymore to put classic journalistic products on the web, hoping that the journalist’s work ends with publication. It is necessary to rethink the life of the product in relation to how it is received and discussed by its readers, showing it to be open to input from them for the construction of public credibility. This becomes an almost equal exchange with the reader, which can be fruitful in terms of credibility and transparency as in the production and fact-checking of the news – and from this point of view, especially with the help of ‘professionals’ of crowdsourcing such as Paul Lewis, The Guardian has always set the agenda as a globally recognized model.

From the need for open journalism an almost ‘political’ criticism to the paywall system has been started. [tweetable]”How could the future of journalism be safe behind a paywall, when the future of journalism is going on outside of it?”[/tweetable] Viner asks. The paywall system is perceived as “antithetical” compared to the open web, an updated version of the old journalism without external intervention and public discussion. A sort of digital re-release of the paper, of the system that is defined by the Danish academic Thomas Pettitt as the “Gutenberg Parenthesis“, the period between the 15th and the 20th centuries where news was distributed in a unilateral way only on fixed, printed, indisputable means. “You can’t take advantage of the benefits of the open web if you’re hidden away” Viner explains. The risk is discovering yourself to be anti-historical, linked to an outdated idea of the reader – a mere paying passive actor – and journalist, as the unique and uncontrolled depositary of news – which now travels and is discussed in the form of “free flow”. The challenge is to overcome this structural and “mental barricade”, adapting journalism not only to a purely technological evolution but to combine street and elite, shaping the classic production to the web ecosystem, embracing activism, bloggers and readers.

The centrality of the reader

Even for Raju Narisetti, Senior Vice President of News Corp, it is quite evident that newsrooms are to be rethought. He expressed his opinion in a speech at the International Newsroom Summit in Berlin. [tweetable]It’s time to stop arguing about digital or print first[/tweetable] Narisetti urges – it’s time to start focusing on our readers. It is not just a way of welcoming indirectly Katherine Viner’s invitation to embrace user intervention (“News will have to go to readers – they do not have to come to us”), but also an opportunity to remind editors and journalists that analyze the way in which the public experiences their products to be able to interpret the feedback. It is necessary to represent tastes with an advertising and editorial point of view. Newspapers are faced with increasingly fierce competitors, Narisetti reminds us. Opponents compete with new and different weapons: advertising is spread over multiple platforms, and advertisers have realized that to be able to ‘sell on the net’ they need to tell stories independently, becoming storytellers who live their own narrative without necessarily spreading it across multiple distribution channels. The call is mandatory: it is necessary to please everyone, readers and advertisers at the same time.

In this regard, the view is changing rapidly. This week Ken Doctor of Nieman Journalism Lab addresses the issue of advertising in the press at the World Publishing Expo, focusing on certain data. [tweetable]Global print advertising has fallen 39%, equivalent to $51 billion, between 2007 and 2013[/tweetable]. At the same time, there is space for new investment in digital, starting from the ‘handicap’ position where two-thirds of the online advertising money goes to Google, Facebook, AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo. Doctor proposes some alternatives to fit this scenario and to get to 2014 with a strategic advantage: adopting new forms of advertising and offering more comprehensive marketing services to advertisers; devising a different paywall model (“paywalls 2.0”), more elastic in relation to the requests of  readers; “selling more stuff”, services and digital products that go far beyond the traditional journalistic standard. Worth noting are the recent adoption by the BBC of a music streaming platform in partnership with Spotify, YouTube and Deezer, or the attempts to diversify its product that The Washington Post is launching.

The fusion of old and new media

[tweetable]”Once upon a time, there was old media“[/tweetable] writes Bob Cohn of the Atlantic on FolioMag. It was an edited, top-edited, copy-edited and fact-checked slow job. “And there was new media”, fast and hungry. A dichotomy that both readers and journalists learned to recognize. Two different standards, halfway between the two worlds of ancient accuracy and a chaotic Far West of  “the spontaneous expression of instantaneous thought…accountable in immediate and unavoidable ways to readers” (Andrew Sullivan, 2008). This ‘wild’ world has been able to adhere to the rules of traditional journalism, the “certain core beliefs typically associated with old media”. Cohn’s thesis is that the gap between digital and paper, in terms of content and production, has been filled or, at least, is on its way. Drawing on his experience at The Atlantic – among the most successful examples of digital-paper interpenetration – the author admits that a good part of the newsroom understands how the work of these two ‘phases’ must necessarily be homogeneous. This is not just about moving desks into the same room, but to learn the language of the other, silently adhering to different platforms, understanding through various attempts how to propose their own journalism and make it work for the widest audience of readers as possible – and not only for visitors.

A clear example of how the relationship between accuracy, speed and virality in the network is a precarious and dangerous balance emerges from a story published on Gawker this week. In a comment, later echoed by one of the authors of the website, a photo of a letter from Facebook in which a father disowns his daughter who disowned her gay son has been published. The newsroom decides to publicly discuss it, doubting the authenticity of what later turned out to be a fake with 17,000 likes and 9,000 shares. “Hey, social media, what do you want, a heartwarming hoax or the dispiriting truth?”, asks Nick Denton, the founder of the website, sharing the post on Twitter, which collects all the concerns on the issue, but also invites discussion about the process of news production on the net. It is a system often hungry for uncontrolled news with a high potential of contacts, unchecked stories that are able to circulate just because they “circulate”, altering the balance between the viral nature of online content and journalistic accuracy. Two goals, explains John Cook, editor-in-chief of Gawker, sometimes at odds with each other, especially in stories like this.