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Inspired union: strategies for journalism to flourish

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Fiona Cullinan, Christian Payne and Lucia Adams

Conference report by Tim Dawson

NUJ freelances displayed an innovative range of strategies to survive and prosper at a one-day conference.  A capacity audience packed the event to hear from more than twenty speakers describing initiatives including: instant-video documentary making, selling into new foreign markets, self-publishing via Kindle, and creating iPad app publications.

Other novel funding sources and work models included crowd-funding foreign photographic assignments, working as a journalist on behalf of brands, cross-funding journalism with authoring corporate ‘white papers’ and, a number of successful co-operatively produced publications.

The event, organised by the London Freelance Branch, aided by the NUJ’s Freelance Office, was held at the London Welsh Centre on 17 November 2012.  Open to all, in excess of 200 people attended, more than half of them women, many of whom contributed to the lively event with their own questions and experiences.

Among the highlights was photographer, Guy Smallman, who has undertaken numerous assignments in Afghanistan, most self-funded.  By entering the country as a non-embedded journalist he has been able to cover stories that were not accessible to colleagues who worked more closely with the military.  The reputation that he has built as a result has more recently enabled him to source crowd-funding larger projects.

Christian Payne (documentally.com) describes himself as a social technologist, multi-tasking communicator or blogger.  After a career as a staff and freelance photographer, he now blogs and makes video documentaries, some following his own interests, others as commercial assignments.

Payne’s total engagement with Twitter started when, after a car crash, he used the micro-blogging service to ask, ‘what do I do now?’  “It was the first point of using social channels when I wasn’t bragging about myself.  I showed some humility, made myself look an arse and loads of people came to my aid.  At that point I decided to embrace the networks and be a storymaker”, he said.

He subsequently made a video from photographs he had taken in Iraq.  When he realised that more people saw his pictures on YouTube than had seen the same photographs when they were published in national newspapers, he decided that he was on to something.  “Although I wasn’t being paid for my pictures, I was building this huge audience of people who were interested in me, and some of them started to offer me work”, he said.

Fiona Cullinan’s (fionacullinan.com) entré to blogging came during a slow spell while she had been booked to work for a contract publisher.  “I would suggest to every journalist that they blog – not necessarily to monetise what they are doing but as a digital playground and as a place to experiment and to show potential clients what you can do”, she said.  Using her blog as a hub, Cullinan started writing about how her working life was developing – particularly as subbing opportunities shrank.  Subsequently, six months emailing a digital agency where she wanted to work eventually bore fruit.

“Freelancing has been a rollercoaster – but it suits me”, said Hina Pandya (@hinapublish).  After a varied career, five years ago she decided to freelance full-time.  Since then, relentless networking and going with the flow of work have been her watchwords.  After becoming frustrated with commissioning editors who would not pay, she published her own travel guide as an eBook and said that sales, to date, have exceeded her expectations.  Commissioned by the Syfy tv channel to blog about a television program ‘Continum’, Pandya found that her related Tweets about the program gained a significant following.  The broadcaster subsequently agreed to pay her to publish in this way.  Her tips for aspirant freelances are to make pitches short and sharp, try to negotiate your fee upwards every time, and invest in your own training.

Huma Yusuf spoke about ‘Breaking the BRICs’ or the media markets in such emerging countries as Brazil, India, Russia and China.  “Media is booming in these countries”, she said.  “In India, newspaper sales are growing at a rate of 1.5% a year and the Times of India has a circulation of 4.3m”.  Much of the media is trying to operate 24/7 so there is a desperate thirst for content – particularly news about how their country is viewed abroad, how their countrymen conduct themselves or are perceived abroad or more general diaspora news.

To break into these markets, Yusuf suggested initially offering material to smaller titles – for example in India the magazines Caravan, the Far East Economic Review or Outlook.  With your reputation established in ‘the only market that matters – their own’, approaches can then be credibly made to larger titles such as The Times of India.  Happily, at least in the case of South Asia, editors tend to display their email addresses on their paper’s websites, and most are ‘addicted’ to social media.  Pay rates vary between $50 and $1,000 for 600 words.  The best way to up these rates, Yusuf suggested, is to offer ‘multi-media’ packages, as many Indian papers have very ‘snazzy websites’ that are perilously thin on content.

The issue of credibility in foreign markets was also addressed by Max Glaskin (@cyclingscience1).  Specialising in engineering and technology, 20 years ago he faxed his details to 150 US magazines.  The replies were few, but made clear that a ‘as a Limey he was unlikely to be able to understand the complexities of American culture’.  Six months later, however, he received a fax from ‘Biophotonics International’ seeking a European contributor.  With credibility established at one journal he picked up work from publications in the same stable – and was then able to use those contacts to leverage work on other US titles.

Work in south east Asia came via a friend who moved there, that Glaskin nagged for work.  When his pal moved on, Glaskin stuck with the title and then made himself known to his friend’s new publication.  “I never pitch stories”, he said.  “I simply let publications know that I am here and that I can supply them whatever they want, so long as it interests me.”  Once his reputation was made with one or two ex-pat journalists, word of his competence was passed around.

Examples discussed at the event varied between techniques that have allowed jobbing freelances to reach new clients and extend their workbase, and more substantial business ventures.  The magazine that Una Murphy edits in Belfast certainly falls into the latter category.  View is a free-to-download digital magazine serving Northern Ireland’s voluntary and community sector.  Set up with Brian Pelan, like Murphy, a 20-year media veteran, the monthly magazine received modest grant support to get it established, but now survives on advertising from suppliers to voluntary organisations.  It is now generating more than £2,000 a month in revenue and is well-established in its target market.

Mark Watts, editor-in-chief of subscription investigative news service, Exaro (exaronews.com) said that although the traditional media model is breaking down, opportunities are also being thrown up.  “The real enemy of journalism is not Leveson, but accountants”, he said.  “Accountants told us that churning copy was more profitable than real journalism, and they were behind the budget cuts at the BBC.  But all over the place real journalism enterprises are springing up to meet real-news needs – so freelances should keep their eyes open, and if you can’t see what you are looking for, maybe do it yourself”.  Watts did warn, however, that freelance looking for work at Exaro should obey the old rule – check out the product first – and make sure that they have the right range of skills, experience and contacts for investigative journalism.

David Boyle the author of The Case For Media Co-ops described several publications that have enjoyed success anew, having adopted a co-operative model. The West Highland Free Press, for example, was bought by its 13 employees in 2009.  Today, they pay themselves well and, after servicing debt, make a return of two per cent on capital.

Marlborough News Online, in Wiltshire, was established as a workers’ co-operative by four journalists.   Providing news for a town without a newspaper, it already generates sufficient revenue to employ all four members for one day a week each and is ‘on track’ to increase this to full times jobs within five years, said Boyle.

At Ethical Consumer magazine, declining advertising revenue threatened the business’ survival.  An appeal to readers, however, raised an investment of £200,000.  The readers are now the magazine’s owners and receive a four percent return on their outlay.  “In the conventional media, the number of titles and reporters is down and so are circulations – but there are outliers where they are proving that local readers do want local content”, said Boyle.  “The great benefit of co-ops is that young talent is in the boardroom from the start, because all staff are involved”.

Alex Klaushofer, co-author of Help Yourself: New ways to make copyright pay, and joint editor of this site, (@alexklaushofer) highlighted a number of trends.  There is life yet in print, she suggested, citing The Blizzard, a quarterly journal of long-form writing about football.  The jury is out on advertising, with profitable hyperlocal news publications such as the Filton Voice (filtonvoice.co.uk) confounding predictions that the advertising model is definitively broken. Meanwhile, foundation and grant funding is supporting a range of new media from investigative heavy hitters ProPublica in the United States to village newsletter The Ambler, in Northumberland. But the States are considerably ahead of the UK in funding quality journalism, innovative practice and research into the changing media landscape, she observed.

Other initiatives mentioned at the event included Phil Mac Giolla Bhain’s Downfall, the story of Glasgow Rangers’ recent travails that was spawned from a blog and has now sold more than 10,000 copies, the Berlin Newspaper Die Tageszeitung, which is owned by its 30,000 subscribers and The Bicycle Reader, a Kindle-only magazine whose first edition was produced with no capital and has already sold 1,000 copies.

Closing the conference, NUJ general secretary Michelle Stansistreet committed the NUJ to extending its services for freelance members.  “It is really clear to me that that this has been a fantastically useful day and as our industry is increasingly freelance, I know how important it is for you all to keep your skills up to date – but it is also good for me to hear from you what you need from the union”.  Stanistreet promised that contributions made during the day would inform the union’s work in the months to come.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

November 22nd, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Animal Magic – photo app sells in the thousands

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Case study by Tim Dawson

Perusing Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols’ iPad app is to see his famed work for National Geographic come alive.  There are more than 30 galleries of pictures from assignments over the past three decades, videos and expedition mementos, all are presented with the kind of slick quality that one might expect from National Geographic itself.

And yet this is not from the stable at the venerable American title, but from the photographer himself.  “If you’re going to look at my work, I really want it to be an ‘environment’ and with the app I could control that”, he explains.  “An app meant no gutters, no clutter, no ads—so you could make something beautiful. That’s what it evolved out of. I didn’t set out to have an app. I set out to come up with a paid content experiment.”

It is available from Apple’s app store for $3.99 – about the same as a copy of National Geographic on for the same platform.  And, as with most sales through the iStore, Apple takes 30% of the purchase price.  Nichols was able to publish his work in this way because, although he has been on National Geographic’s staff since 1996, and is currently the magazine’s editor-at-large, he shares copyright in his works with his employer.  Developing the app took around a year and was largely undertaken by Greg Harris of the Daily Interactive and Nichols studio manager Jenna Pirog.

Nichols won’t be drawn on the actual cost of developing the app.  He does confirm, however, that since its launch in July, it has sold nearly 3,000 copies.  The target has always been around 5,000 – the level of sales at which he says that he would consider his previous books of photography a success.

What his app shows beyond question is how fabulous photography can look on an iPad.  The luminous quality that the Apple device’s screens add to still images is wonderful – although, obviously, the lustre that this to images diminishes the more used to it viewers become.  Less certain is whether this publishing model is one that might be emulated by others.  Nichols acknowledges that he can only undertake his work because it is financed by his employer.

Notwithstanding that, as the skills in creating apps proliferate and the take up of tablet computers spreads, there is much in this model that could be copied.  Apple’s hermitically-sealed world might annoy some, but, apps offer a level of digital rights management that will reassure many of those who make their living from controlling use of their images.  And, even if selling photographs as apps might not provide sufficient funds on which to retire, the combination of usefulness as a portfolio, sales revenue with a long tail, and potentially very low start-up costs, should make this an attractive route to self-publishing for an increasing number of photographers.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

September 24th, 2012 at 10:21 am

Posted in iPad apps,US

iPad sailing magazine trims its sails

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Update by: Tim Dawson

Eighteen months after launch, Justin Chisholm’s iPad magazine sailracing’s app has been downloaded 85,000 times and he is close to employing an advertising sales director.  Nevertheless, he has ascended a steep learning curve since producing his launch issue.

His first change off tack was the cover charge.  Initially, the magazine sold for £3.99 a copy through the Apple store.  Within a couple of issues, Chisholm had decided that a free model, supported by advertising, made more business sense.  “It is important to be able to show advertisers that I am reaching a big market”, he says.

He is also frank about the work load of running a magazine single handed.  “It seemed a lot easier to concentrate on growing one revenue stream – advertising – rather than having to keep on top of advertising and subscriptions.

It is not the only business streamlining that he has done either.  Originally he used a separate design agency to put the pages together.  For his next edition he intends to bring that work in house.  “It is amazing how much time can be soaked up in maintaining business relationships”, he explains.  “The designers were great, but tooing and froing with emails, trying to get changes made, and having a similar situation with contributors, just wasted so much time.  There will be a slight deterioration in quality when I take over the design, but the time saving will make a huge difference to me”.

He also plans to branch out from just producing an iPad edition.  That will remain his focus, but from having a shop-front website, his web presence will become more magazine-like, and he intends to make his material available via an RSS feed, so that it can be read via Instapaper and Flipboard.  “So far as the advertisers are concerned, the bigger the audience, the better”.

Until now, Chisholm has taken the lead with advertising sales too and this is set to change.  “I have looked for ad sales people before, but it has been struggle to find someone suitable who was willing to work on commission.  I have found  that person now, but it has required me to completely rethink my business relationship with ad sales”.

To date the magazine has comfortable washed its face, but the surpluses thus far generated have not been enough to give Chisholm a living.  He is confident with the soon-to-be completed restructuring, that the publication will become a lot more profitable.  “The advertisers have always been so positive, and we are the only magazine in our niche, so I am confident that the investment will pay off in the near future.”

 

Written by Tim Dawson

June 25th, 2012 at 11:18 am

Posted in iPad apps,Niche

The places that the tablets can’t reach

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Rupert Murdoch’s reputation as a media visionary might have taken a battering in recent months.  His famed enthusiasm for iPads as a news deliver device, however, is beginning to look as if it might yet prove to be as shrewd as his gamble as the one that he made on subscription tv two decades ago.

Research by Forrester, the US based consultancy and research firm, shows how profoundly the acquisition of an iPad changes users behaviour.  Around a third of those answering the company’s questionnaire said that they read fewer books and used their personal computers less frequently after buying an iPad.  One in four say that the number of newspapers and magazines they read fell, and 20% found themselves using their MP3 players less.

Part of the reason for this appears to be that iPad users have different attitudes and expectations compared to other device users – one survey in the US found that among all computer users just 5% were willing to pay for news, rising to 12% among iPad users.  Murdoch’s The Daily, which is not available in the UK, might not have been a runaway success, but the 120,000 subscribers that they reported last October is a respectable and growing base. And surprisingly, most opt to subscribe for a year at a time, rather than on a rolling daily basis.

In 2011, 56 million people found themselves owners of a new tablet computer.  Forrester predicts that global sales will rise to 375 million by 2016.  Taking into account those that are discarded, broken or lost, this suggests 760 million tablets in use around the world by 2016, a third of them by business and 40% of them in emerging markets.

As Ken Doctor, author of Newsenomics has noted, “surveys show that people seem to like reading news on tablets, with many saying they prefer the tablet experience to that of the newspaper. As tablets become cheaper to buy, it’s merely a matter of time before newspapers flip the switch and stop printing altogether in favour of digital editions”.

At one level I suspect that he is right – not least as I am among those iPad newspaper subscribers.  However, I have been exercising my political-activist muscles this past few weeks by indulging in that bedrock of electioneering – delivering leaflets.  It is a miserable and thankless job.  Apart from the chance to examine unfamiliar neighbourhoods at walking speed, delivering to letterboxes is without relief.

With time on my hands for thinking, though, I could not help but wonder whether there was not a better way to get messages to householders?  Surely email, Facebook and Twitter could replace shoe leather when it comes to identifying potential voters?  Could my leaflets not be simply ‘pushed’ to the putative voter iPads.

I discussed the idea with my local party organiser – a talented electioneer of long experience, who travelled to the US to work on Obama’s first election campaign.  He did not give me much hope that my days of expressing my commitment in shoe leather were coming to a close.  “Social media has some uses among activists, it is good for getting messages out quickly and I have even managed to recruit on Twitter.  For communicating with the electorate itself, however, it is all but useless.  However high the take up, we are nowhere near the point where half the electorate can be reached by electronic means (apart from the telephone).  For so long as that is the case, electoral politics will always start with leaflets and printed election addresses”.

These twin truths appear to place us in a strange an paradoxical position.  On the one hand the rush to new media will quite properly be the main concern for most media companies.  In this respect, tablet formats that retain clear editions and create a clear revenue stream, will be the rightful preoccupation of many.

However, there will be a mass analogue market for many years to come.  Eric Gordon’s optimism about genuinely local papers – expressed here – might sound backward looking.  But I suspect that even now there are a few journalists entering the trade even now, who could see out their careers committing their words to ink –  albeit they are likely to be at the resolutely local end of the game.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

May 8th, 2012 at 4:20 am

Student newspaper iPad edition blazes a trail

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As many publications struggle to adapt their offer for the download era, students in Yorkshire have provided an object lesson in creating digital product.  Leeds Student, the award-winning weekly tabloid serving Leeds University, has become the first student newspaper with an iPad edition.

The weekly download comes out a couple of days after each Friday’s edition and contains around half of the usual 48-pages of content.  Available in Apple’s Newsstand, it is free, as is the paper’s printed edition.

Lizzie Edmonds is the editor.  “When we upgraded the version of Quark that we use we noticed that it included a lot of iPad tools, so we thought that we would give it a try”, she explains.  The package – Quark 9 – made their work very easy, says Jack Dearlove, the paper’s digital editor, who did much of the work on app.  “The package is very design-focussed.  Putting the iPad edition together is a ‘drag-and-drop’ exercise”.

The current edition, and well as the news and features one might expect, includes a live blog, audio interviews the candidates standing for election to be the next editor of Leeds Student, and impressive galleries of sports photography.

There have been iPad versions of the past five weekly papers, and editions have now been downloaded by around 1,000 users, more than 600 of whom are in the UK.  The paper variant of the title has a print run of 5,000 and is thought to be read by around 15,000 of Leeds university’s 35,000 students and 8,000 staff.

“It is the more well-off students who tend to have iPads, at the moment”, concedes Dearlove.  “You do see the devices around campus, but they are not as common say, as mobile phones”.

The aspiration for the iPad edition was partially to create something that is still about in five or ten years time, and part to make their content accessible to ‘older students and staff’ who are more likely to use Apple tablets.  Edmonds and Dearlove both cite The Times digital edition as an inspiration and would like to include more multi-media content, if they were able.  They are dismissive of publications that offer readers ‘a pdf version’ of their print edition. “They totally miss the potential of the iPad”, says Dearlove.

“I don’t see us abandoning print anytime soon, though”, says Edmonds, who receives a salary to edit the newspaper for a sabbatical year.  “Students still enjoy the paper edition and most are able to come into the Union to pick up a copy.  A time might come, though, when we go entirely digital.”  They also say that the potential to raise advertising revenue from the iPad edition has not yet been realised – but as the paper relies on such revenue, that will be a focus in the future.

Around 40 students work on producing each week’s edition of the paper.  Dearlove and Edmonds alone adapt it for the iPad, a job which takes them six or seven hours a week.  With an ‘educational’ licence for their version of their software, they pay Quark a £25 fee for each iPad edition they create.  A commercial venture would pay around £250 per edition.  It was with this software that they created their ‘app’, which had to be submitted for approval to Apple, who took something over a month to give the students the thumbs up.  Each week, the upload a single file of content to a server, from which it is distributed.

Edmonds, 23, who has now graduated in English and Classics and Dearlove, 21, who is in his third year of a degree in broadcast journalism, would, with more resources, like to see the iPad edition come out simultaneously with the print edition.  Android, Kindle and other platforms are also aspirations, albeit ones dependent on software making the creation of multiple editions less time-consuming. For the time being, both are content to bask in the glow of their memorable first – and hope that it provides a useful springboard for the careers to which they aspire in the professional media.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

April 23rd, 2012 at 3:38 am

Paywalls proliferate, despite their detractors

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Comment by Tim Dawson

A string of positive recent headlines suggest that paywalls will be with us for some time to come, however regressive some consider them.  The New York Times a few days ago announced that it has 455,000 paying online news users – and reduced the amount of free content available on its sites.  News International released figures showing a 20% growth in digital subscribers over the past year and, Gannet announced that in the US it plans to restrict access to 80 of its titles.

The Daily Mirror says that it plans to launch a sub-£10 a month iPad edition.  And, The Australian sold 30,000 digital subscriptions in the first six weeks of erecting a paywall around its content.  In the US, 43% of daily papers now restrict all or some portion of their web content.

None of which has quietened those such as Clay Shirky, who argues that paywalls have a future that is about as promising as that enjoyed by audio cassettes as a means of listening to pre-recorded music.

In the long-run Shirky may just be right – although I am sceptical.  What he seemingly refuses to accept in the here and now is that those who are charging for their content (such as The Times and The Sunday Times – the latter of which I continue to be a regular contributor to, incidentally) are sanguine about the ‘lost millions’ of readers from their pre-paywall metrics.  The Times tally of digital subscribers has almost certainly now passed the daily circulation of The Independent, so can’t be dismissed too easily.  With almost no costs of distribution or printing, and most of its content garnered from the paper’s print editions, it surely represents a sustainable model?

There has also been a significant shift over the past five years to an acceptance that it is necessary to pay for digital content.  Apples iTunes currently has two hundred million credit cards registered – a massive customer base of customers who have accepted the need to pay.   Add to that the four million who are thought to have bought Kindles, and will consequently paid for their content, the case that sufficient consumes will never pay to sustain digital editorial products seems increasingly hard to argue.

Of course that does not mean that everything in the garden is rosy.  Research by the Pew Centre, which has been mentioned on this site before, shows just how hard it is to replicate ‘print-size’ revenue with that from digital.  Today’s trickle may never turn into gush, but that is not to say that it won’t sustain a good few media business in the coming years.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

March 26th, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Posted in iPad apps,News,Paywalls

Exact Editions’ digital magazines are real page turners

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Report by Tim Dawson.

Global shipments of tablet computers reached 26.8 million units during the fourth quarter of 2011 – 150 per cent up on the same quarter the preceding year.  And according to one survey, 71% of tablet owners are interested in using their devices to consume magazines, so it is easy to see why publishers are racing into the digital market place.

Some, such as largest, Zinio, deal mainly with major publishing houses.  Others, like London-based Exact Editions, have made a virtue of bringing independently published magazines to the digital marketplace, as well as allowing them to be consumed on multiple platforms.

Launched in 2006, the company now sells digital editions of more than 120 magazines – mostly in English and originating in the UK, although it has an expanding stable of titles in French and from Australia and Ireland.  There are many household names in their stable, such as The Spectator, Le Monde Diplomatique, FourFourTwo and Burke’s Peerage, as well a fair number of more niche titles.

“Publishers give us an unvectorised pdf and we do the rest”, explains managing director Daryl Rayner.  “Subscribers can then access a publication to which they subscribe either online – although it still feels like a magazine, or via an iTunes subscription, or via a branded iPad/iPhone app”.  It is also possible to download pdfs of magazines, and for academic institutions to take out site licences that allow publications to be read throughout their libraries.

The end product looks and feels like a magazine, with flippable pages.

In most cases, publishers offer digital subscribers access to all or part of their back catalogue which, because of the way that Exact Editions digitise their content, is searchable.  For those who subscribe to multiple titles though Exact Editions, it is even possible to apply search queries to more than one magazine catalogue at a time.

Subscription pricing is left to publishers, although Rayner advise is that they should charge around 20 per cent less than a traditional print sub.  Of the receipts, Exact Editions take 20 per cent commission, and on subscriptions sold within the EU, VAT is generally chargeable.  Subscriptions taken out though the iStore come to Exact Editions less the 30 per cent commission taken by Apple.

Apple now allows those taking out subscriptions to voluntarily share their personal details with publishers, and Rayner says that a significant number are now doing so.  In the case of subscriptions taken out directly with Exact Editions, they are owned by the original publishers, who receive the full details of all subscribers.

Publishers also have access to a portal that gives them real-time, downloadable data relating to subscription activity.

To date, all but one of Exact Editions’ titles are print magazines that wish to create a digital edition.  Rayner does not rule out publishing digital-only magazines.

She won’t be drawn on specific metrics either for the scale of her company or sales units, save to say that app subscriptions have ‘taken off dramatically’ during the last quarter.  The level of most digital subscriptions is in proportion with the size of the print magazine, she says, although one or two, such at Arsenal magazine The Gooner, have reached new international audiences that they had hitherto failed to penetrate.

The editor of one niche interest magazine that publishes through Exact Editions sells around one fifth of his subscriptions digitally, after several years with Exact Editions – for whom he is full of praise.  But the rise in digital subs has largely been matched by a fall in paper subs, he points out.

“I suspect that our paper product will disappear altogether in a year or so and we will go 100 per cent digital.  Whether that will be on the Exact Editions model, however, I don’t know.  I am considering turning our product into a free-to-download pdf that pays for itself through advertising – particularly as our advertising revenue and our international copying royalties have done will in recent years.”

Clearly, Exact Editions has made a good fist of riding out the last five years, and as the digital subscriptions market continues to grow exponentially, well-placed and innovative providers of this kind seem set to thrive.  As the editor above comments suggest, second-guessing which digital publishing model will survive and thrive is not easy.  And what shape the industry will be in by the time that this market starts to consolidate, of course, is impossible to tell.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

February 28th, 2012 at 6:57 am

Posted in E-books,iPad apps

Think of a number and double/halve it: the science behind online subs pricing

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Comment by Tim Dawson

Deciding whether it makes business sense putting online publications behind paywalls is increasingly like finding scientific evidence for the existence of God.  Your conclusion appears to be determined more by pre-existing prejudice than from any meaning actually extracted from data.

In the past week, Wolverhampton’s Express and Star has abandoned the paywall that it had erected around its content in April 2011, which gave access to the entire paper’s content for £2.81 a week.  The paper’s publisher did not elaborate on the reasons for the lifting of the paywall, but did announce new iPhone and iPad apps for its content.

The New York Times announced that it has seen no change in traffic to its sites, since it put up a soft paywall and Mecom, which publishes a range of European newspapers on the web, has switched from providing free content to 1.2m subscribers to requiring that customers will have to pay.

The Scotsman, too, has just launched a very attractive iPad app, which is free for 30 days but will cost £7.99 a month thereafter.

This price point is illustrative of another area in which the fog over paywalls is so thick as to make cool analysis difficult – pricing.  At the top of the tree is the Financial Times.  Full access to its content via an iPad costs £353 a year.  The Times/Sunday Times’ digital package (which is for seven papers a week compared to the FT’s six) is just £104 a year.  That makes The Scotsman’s app, at £96 a year (also for just six papers a week) looks pricey.

Check out the costs of a Kindle subscription to any of these papers, and the picture becomes more confused.  A Kindle sub to the FT will cost you just £216 a year, The Times, on the other hand, costs £120 a year.  The Guardian and Observer, usually so opposed to charges for digital content, also ask £120 a year to read their content on your Kindle.

Magazines are no less unpredictable.  The Spectator’s cover price is £3.50, but an annual, posted subscription to the actual magazine can be had for £104 a year.  A Kindle sub, on the other hand, costs just £36. A paper subscription to The Economist can be had for £102 a year, but the Kindle subscription cost £120 annually.

Does any of this matter? This is, after all, an emerging market in which established commercial practices and price norms have clearly not settled down. There is a compelling argument that the way to profit from digital subscriptions is to make the process of paying so seamless that consumers hardly notice that they have signed up at all.

However, there is surely also a risk of leaving consumers feeling cheated. Even those who have committed to paying for content at the moment face a bewildering search for the best deal.  At least most publishers allow a reasonably generous ‘cooling off’ period, in case you plump for a Kindle version, say, and then decide that you would prefer the enhancements of reading on an iPad.  Nevertheless, it would be hard to blame anyone for deciding to keep their credit cards in their pockets in the face of such apparently Chinese-menu marketing and mixed messages about the sustainability of any charging model.

 

 

Written by Tim Dawson

January 30th, 2012 at 5:37 am

Cycling polemicist strikes viral paydirt

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Case study by Tim

Writing his Bike To Work book, Carlton Reid’s intention was to produce a conventional printed tome.  A trade publisher of 25 years experience, his business model was simple – sell sufficient advertisements to pay for the book and then give away the product.   Creating an eBook was an afterthought.   Nevertheless, in the two years since it was published, it has been downloaded more than 350,000 times and generated around £25,000 worth of advertising revenue.

Reid wrote, edited, designed and laid-up the book and took all but ten of the photographs.  “I am self-taught in publishing in the round”, he explains.  He also identified the advertisers, but the deals were all closed by his long-time business associate – his father.  “Being one-person removed from the selling keeps me (editorially) clean”.

When the book took longer to complete than he expected, he put the finished product online first – it went viral, and print was abandoned (save for a print-on-demand edition).

The book has appeared in many versions – some being distributed by third parties like the London Cycle Campaign.  But digital distribution is all though Issuu, the Danish self-publishing platform.  Reid generates a final pdf and then loads in on to Issuu’s server.  Conversion into a format that can be read on computers and tablets such at the iPad and the Kindle happens automatically.

“I was one of the first UK publishers on Issuu and they did publicise the book at first, which was a great help.  It is still the best platform, as far as I am concerned, and everything they do is free”, he says.  One of the many appeals of their service is the diagnostics.  Of course they show how many times the book has been downloaded, but they also track how far into the book people read.

“There is a huge spike in the first ten pages, as you would expect”, says Reid.  “But you can also see how many people have actually opened up every page.  You can show advertisers that, say 15,000 people have viewed your advert.  That is something that no newspaper can do, and I think that it has actually converted a lot of our advertisers to eBooks as an advertising vehicle.”

So successful has the Bike To Work been, that Reid has turned down conventional publishers who offered to take on his next venture.  To be published in the early Spring, Roads Were Not Built For Cars will be a history of roads and road improvements in the decades before the motor car.  As with his previous book, Reid’s intentions are more polemical than commercial.  Nevertheless, the early signs are that he has found another successful niche.  An eight-page sampler has been downloaded 11,000 times – in part generated by an energetic Twitter campaign.

Although he has been in business his entire working life – he set up and subsequently sold the trade magazine Bike Biz – Reid’s philosophy is decidedly non commercial.  “I don’t factor in my own time at all, because I enjoy what I do and I would be doing it even if it did not make a bean”, he says.  He is by no means the first inadvertent capitalist – but unlike many he seems quite content to pursue his own projects while his commercial interests thrive in an apparently parallel universe.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

December 19th, 2011 at 8:45 am

Tablets provide media with sweet relief

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Analysis by Tim Dawson.

News International’s announcement last week that digital sales of its Times/Sunday Times products had grown by 3% over the past three months dispel for the moment suggestions that Murdoch’s paywall strategy is bust.  With 111,000 subscribers, and growing, it is quite possible that News International’s online customers will over take the daily sales of some print editions before long.

That does not mean, of course, that this constitutes a sustainable business.  Times digital editions are being so extensively marketed at the moment, that it would astonishing if they were not making sales.  But as Murdoch has shown time and again, he is more than willing to invest over the long term to achieve a position of market dominance. Indeed, it would be rash not to think that Times digital subscribers might not outnumber buyers of The Independent reasonably soon.

Which element of the digital offering it is that is driving sales is not easy to unpick from NI’s figures – but it is fair to assume that the much admired iPad edition is a significant factor in the success.

It is by no means the only iPad add success either.  The New York Times now offers a $20 app, the Daily Telegraph is now offering its app to it 330,000 print subscribers.

And while magazine iPad editions are not yet a significant part of the UK market place, the rush of US magazines to tablet editions suggests that this won’t be the case for much longer.  The Newstand feature of iOS5, which groups newspaper and magazine apps together in the App Store, appears to have prompted a rush to launch digital editions. Meredith Corporation, publisher of Better Homes and Gardens, Parents and Fittness magazines announced iPad editions this week, joining Martha Stewart’s Living and a host of other US newsstand staples.

The extent to which consumers are willing to pay for tablet editions, remains subject to dispute.  Joint research by the Pew Centre and the Economist Group found that 11 per cent of US adults now have a tablet computer, of whom 77 per cent use them daily, for an average of 90 minutes. Just over half of users told the researchers that they used their device to access news, 14 per cent said that they had paid directly for content, while 23 per cent had pre-exiting subscriptions that gave them access to digital content.

“If news organisations are more successful at finding a way to reap revenue in the tablet environment than they have on the Internet more broadly, the movement toward tablet consumption could be quite promising,” the study  concluded. “The likelihood of that, though, is uncertain at best.”

Not all crystal ball gazers agree, however.  A new report from Juniper research predicts that annual revenue from eNewspapers will exceed $1.1billion by 2016.  While some publishers will struggle to adapt, it observes, modest subscriptions charged for access would soon outweigh initial losses from online advertising revenue.

Whether Dr Windsor Holden, author of the Jupiter report, is right or not, you can be sure that larger publishers will be aiming a great deal of their product development spend on tablet editions for the foreseeable future. It is a situation that will place some smaller players in a quandary. The window of opportunity for self-funded iPad start-ups like Sailracing will not remain quite so wide open for much longer.  It will always be possible to start a tablet publication relatively cheaply, but once the market is crowded with expensively produced titles, it will be a lot harder to gain a foothold.

Even more significantly, the market for the kind of skills necessary to bring such products to market will be a good deal hotter than has been the case till now. Many will choose the guaranteed returns of working for major publishing houses than the uncertainties of their own ventures.

Fundamentally, though, it is good news for those who worry about journalism’s future.  Even if the public’s enthusiasm for paid-for table content proves to be illusory, the scale of investment that it will take to conclusively reach that point will be enough to tide a great many editorial workers over until the next great hope – whatever that might be.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

October 25th, 2011 at 5:01 am