Can Publishers Create a Business Class For News?

In their ongoing struggle to get readers to pay for content, some media companies have implemented paywalls, while others have hitched their wagon to Apple’s (s aapl) app store and are trying a subscription model. But what if, instead of trying to charge everyone for the same content, publishers could come up with something similar to what business class achieves for airline passengers: a premium experience. Would people pay for that? Design agency Information Architects thinks they would — but the problem for news companies is that others are already busy creating that experience.

The design agency — which is headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland and Tokyo, Japan — has worked for some of the world’s leading newspapers, including Ziet Online in Germany, and also created the Writer application for the iPad. In a recent blog post, co-founder Oliver Reichenstein described a conversation with the CEO of a large publishing company about revenue-generating strategies for newspapers and other content companies. Reichenstein made the point that:

The main currency of news sites is attention and not dollars and that I believe that it is his job, as a publisher, to turn that attention into money to keep the attention machine running.

The CEO agreed, and said that he had been thinking about how to do that, but didn’t see paywalls as the answer. Then he came up with the “business class” analogy:

Why do people fly Business Class? In the end, an airplane brings me to the same place regardless of whether I fly Economy or Business Class and the massive price-increase I pay doesn’t compare the difference in value.

The answer, the CEO said, was that business class was just a better experience — less crowded, more pleasant treatment from the flight attendants, better food and drinks, shorter lines for security checks, and so on. And it’s true, says Reichenstein, that the experience that many newspaper readers get is a little like an economy-class airplane flight: news pages are cluttered with banner ads, widgets designed to promote other content in the paper, useless features and a “claustrophobic information design [that makes] the reading experience a torture.” What if some of that could be removed to create a better experience?

There’s no question that Reichenstein is onto something with this approach. Many newspaper pages and websites look hideous — and the New York Times, which he uses for his example, is actually one of the most well-designed in terms of readability. All the pageview-generating mechanisms and promotional features and banner ads squeeze the actual content into such a narrow box that it is actually difficult to read. Which is why so many people (including me) prefer to read through apps such as Flipboard and Zite, which in many cases display the content free from all the clutter, or by using tools such as Instapaper and Readability, which do the same.

The only problem with this strategy, of course, is that it strips away the ability of publishers to pay for their content — which is why Zite got hit with a cease-and-desist order from a number of content companies recently, for altering the appearance of their content without permission (Zite has made changes to its approach and now shows many sites in a web-page view). Flipboard has been much more accommodating in its dealings with publishers, and is trying to interest them in a revenue-sharing model, which seems to be having some success given the company’s recent announcement of a deal with Oprah Winfrey. Readability and Instapaper, meanwhile, have implemented a kind of “tip jar” approach to try to help publishers recoup some revenue from those missing ads.

One of the big issues with the “business class” metaphor, however (like the “iTunes for news” analogies that were popular not so long ago), is that news simply isn’t like air travel at all, in some pretty important ways. To take just one example, you can only fly one airline at a time, and you can only go to one destination at a time. The rise of RSS readers, and more recently, Twitter and other social-reading tools such as Flipboard, Zite and Tweetmag allows people to read multiple sources at a time, and that is one thing that the IA design approach doesn’t really take into account.

Is there a way for publishers to replace some of their lost revenue by working with Flipboard and Zite and other similar tools? They’d better hope so, because it’s happening whether they figure it out or not.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Karl Baron