How bespoke printing, and an iTunes for articles, could save the Newspaper

npk_image1Simon McGarr, editor of online periodical Tuppenceworth, and in his role as council to Digital Rights Ireland, stalwart defender of all those juicy ephemeral rights and freedoms we currently enjoy online; has had an idea. You see Simon loves newspapers. He writes about them, speaks about them, and researches them, with the intensity others reserve for rock music or sports results. So when Simon tells me newspapers are in trouble, I listen. Readers are aging and circulations declining (relative to population growth), and the question inevitably arises, how can the humble daily hope to survive? Mr McGarr thinks he has an answer. Before we get to that, let me describe how things are on the other side of the fence; because you see, I’m part of the problem. Sure I’ll trawl through the Sunday Times if it’s lying around, I’ll even pay for a Guardian once in a blue moon if I’m feeling guilty and uninformed, or heaven forbid a Herald, when they drag up (as they invariably do) some new evidence in a cold, old case that has a special importance to me. But basically, I don’t read newspapers.
Like the father portrayed in Buck 65’s wonderful track ‘Roses and Bluejays’, I ‘read books of every sort’ but ‘get all the news [I] need from the weather report.’ I avoid newspapers for the same reason I don’t watch television. I don’t enjoy being passively indoctrinated. Whilst my reasoning may not be representative, my apathy is. In a time when you can have Japanese lessons, National Public Radio, the latest news from the worlds of skydiving, knitting or subatomic physics delivered to your RSS reader, why would anyone read a newspaper? Or more accurately, why would anyone pay for a newspaper? Freesheets like Metro, which subsist on snazzily repackaged press releases and AP cuttings, seem to be doing quite well. The conventional answers – timeliness, local relevance, and newspaper specific features like investigative reporting, opinion editorials and Suduku grids – just don’t seem to cut it any more. Almost two years ago I attended a lecture delivered by Senator Shane Ross, Business Editor of the Sunday Independent, Irelands most popular ‘broadsheet’, and asked the esteemed magnate a cheeky question. How in the era of citizen journalism, podcasting, vidcasting, IPTV, blogging and user generated reportage, can traditional newspapers survive? His answer – they probably can’t, and that is no bad thing.

Simon McGarr agrees with the first part of Senator Ross’s reply, and vehemently disagrees with the second. To Simon, newspapers are an essential element of a functioning democracy, and philistine that I am, I’m inclined to agree with him. Here’s what he’s proposing we do about it.

Proposal for a meta-publishing platform

Simon wants to aggregate content, and he wants you to pay for it. This is not as crazy as it initially sounds. For all their benefits, blogs and podcasts have significant barriers to adoption. Both are currently (and likely will remain for quite some time) far less user friendly than the humble newspaper. The cheap, ubiquitous, viewable in daylight, ergonomic, user friendly digital reader does not exist. When it finally comes, as it must, two, five, or ten years from now, the content it relies on must be paid for somehow. Such a devise will kill the bookshop, just as surely as as the mp3 killed the record store, but that’s a story for another article! Online advertising is ultimately a zero sum game; there are only so many eyeballs, and only so many iotas of attention to go around, and clever selfish users will expend enormous amounts of effort getting around it. Whilst blogs will remain a terrific source of opinion, analysis and information, they cannot hope (and have not yet managed) to replace the scope and depth of traditional investigative reportage. Bloggers would have castigated Nixon, but it seems unlikely they would have uncovered the Watergate conspiracy in enough detail to impeach and force the man from office. We need reporters and we enjoy professional writers, and both need to get paid.

Simon’s proposal is the creation of an open aggregation platform, from which users purchase their own bespoke newspaper; and writers receive a cut based directly on individual subscriptions to their content. That’s that basic idea, but as ever, the devil’s in the details.

How is such content aggregated in the first place?

Under Simon’s proposed system, individual writers sign up, either with a view to building an audience or in the knowledge that an existing audience will follow them to the platform. Newspaper, magazine, research, even fiction publishers sign up to increase their distribution for individual articles, stories, books or whole sections of their publications.

How is content edited?

Each writer and reader become an editor. Lazy users can choose from existing pre-mixed packs of news and features – think cable packages – these could be as coherent as ‘Features from all the Irish dailies’, as specific as ‘All news stories focused on the Chinese mainland’ or as esoteric as ‘Today in Soup Making’.
More adventurous users can pick and mix from individual authors, topics, ‘reading lists’ selected by their favourite writers and pundits, or articles enjoyed and recommended by their friends. Which brings me to..

How is content selection navigated?

This is possibly the hardest question for the proposed service – how to present such a wealth of information. It will take research and experimentation to get right. The probable answer is that there is no one correct way, and an amalgam of web browsing, iTunes style catalogue and feed grazing paradigms – with ‘feeds’ dynamically navigable based on numerous criteria – will probably emerge. Perhaps most exciting as a content discovery mechanism is social networking – suggestions based on existing maps of friendship (imported from online social networks), direct recommendations (think’s for: tag), geographic and demographic preferences.

How is content paid for?

Simon favours a subscription model, but there are additional potential sources of revenue, and many potential methods of payment. Users could phone a premium rate number, send a text, buy ‘credit’ as with pay per use phones, or subscribe via laser or credit card. In addition to subscription, advertising, likely a better source of income with this model than traditional newspapers, offers a significant income stream. Advertisers should be attracted by the hyper-local nature of distribution, which I’ll get to next, and the targetability of sales. Of course there’s no reason why as distribution costs fall, advertising can’t be used to offset the price of content delivery; nor why more expensive ad-free versions cannot be provided. So lets get to the doozy…

How is all this content to be delivered?

Simon and I had a tremendously involved conversation on this topic on Tuesday, and the solution we arrived at was this. Individualized newspapers printed at kiosks in newsagents, shopping centres and the like. Content selection can occur online or right on the device, and content delivery involves the printing of your unique paper (perhaps paired to your phones bluetooth UID), while you wait. It’s likely bespoke printing solutions of the dimension and speed required already exist – in the US, libraries are trialling print on demand public domain titles, whilst online web2.0 vanity publishers are providing the capability to produce individual full colour glossy books at about or less than the cost of an off the shelf equivalent.
But assuming we need to create the device itself, lets look at the components involved – a commodity touch screen, daily replaceable paper roll, broadband connection (already in place at any shop with a lotto machine), rapid low cost printer and binding apparatus. And that’s it. The output would be a Berliner or smaller tabloid format paper. The unit cost (excepting ongoing paper replacement, bandwidth, maintenance and electricity) shouldn’t exceed 20k; and would of course decrease greatly with mass production. As Simon is keen to point out, Ireland as a reasonably densely populated, geographically diverse, ethnically and demographically heterogeneous nation, with high literacy and GNP per capita, makes the perfect testbed for such a service – which if successful should certainly work internationally, and provide daily newspapers a previously unheard of geographic reach.

So it’s a newspaper?

Yes, but we don’t need to stop there; once we’ve established a POS for content, we can add additional media delivery through bluetooth, WIFI, CDR burning etc. The core service proposed is an enormously individualised, highly localised, distributed alternative to traditional daily publishing.

How much would it cost?

Clearly the ultimate cost of such a paper paper would be a key factor in uptake (along with ease of use, successful syndication deals etc). Right now it’s difficult to estimate the cost of the finished product. The likelihood is that it would cost significantly more than a traditional newspaper, at least initially. But it would offer significantly higher value to the reader – think of the utility of family or friendship group based news reporting, of regulation bulletins to legislators, stock market analysis to traders, exam prep to students, of any number of other long tail markets.

What are the obstacles?

The barriers to the development of such a platform are not insignificant. On the hardware side, a fast, effective and reliable solution must be sourced or constructed. On the software side a mass market user friendly front end needs to be paired with a marketplace for writing and photography (incidental, feature and reportage), robust editorial features, and a sophisticated distributed distribution architecture (think bittorrent). The range within which writers may set their prices needs to be balanced with the budget they are allotted to illustrate their articles (alternately an open illustration market could sell images to feature writers based on a cut of their sales). The degree of editorial control needed to prevent liable, and the printing of ‘The Al Qaeda Times’, needs to be carefully examined, in tandem with the ease of contribution for both writers and photographers. Archives should of course be free, but after what period? The software element of the platform is clearly multi-faceted and vital, both on the user and content provider end, and it’s construction non-trivial, but certainly not impossible. Nor are the barriers to adoption, from inertia to technophobia, necessarily intractable.

The key here is that the ‘product’ could ultimately offer a benefit to all current stakeholders in print news media. As a paid outlet for the the swathe of would be writers and pundits who lack a means of monetising their creations, as a place where well known authors can sell directly to their established audience, as a method for publishers to reverse declining sales, and as a new medium for the reader ill served by overly generic newspapers. On a final note, it’s an interesting postulate to make that such a scheme might not need a corporate behemoth behind it, to succeed on a smaller scale. Open source instructions could provide a template for an open platform, built by enthusiasts, profiting from their individual machines, selling on material created by a loosely affiliated network of content providers. Either way, how ironic would it be if the salvation of newsprint were to arise in the end from the much maligned blogosphere.