Future of media: This is no time for incrementalism

In a recent piece for Forbes magazine, Washington Post (s wpo) managing editor Raju Narisetti looks at the challenges that mainstream media of all kinds are facing — falling circulation, the gap between traditional print advertising and the smaller revenues from online advertising, and the difficulties of trying to be digital while still running a legacy business. So what are his solutions for what he calls the “broken business model of quality journalism?” Narisetti doesn’t really have any, which isn’t surprising: as the recent report from the FCC on the future of media showed, it’s a lot easier to describe the problems facing the media industry than it is to come up with answers. But one thing is becoming clear: incremental changes are not enough.

Narisetti says in his piece that while many media companies such as the Washington Post are growing their online audiences, that doesn’t even come close to making up for the loss of print subscribers, because one generates revenue and the other doesn’t:

The print subscribers we lose are typically loyal readers who spent 40-plus minutes with The Post each day and have done so for years. The majority of online readers — both new and old — are promiscuous, read tiny morsels in under five minutes per visit and think the same Post content that others pay for in print is not worth paying for online.

Paywalls and apps aren’t the answer

The WaPo editor also notes that while many mainstream media companies have gotten good at cutting costs, they have “consistently failed to imagine and then incubate a Craigslist, a Groupon [or] a Monster.com… nor are they any closer today than they were last year in fixing the broken business model of quality journalism.” And while charging readers may seem like the right solution, whether via paywalls or iPad apps, Narisetti argues (correctly, I think) that there are some serious issues with those answers as well, including:

  • A metered model makes your business susceptible to the will of a few readers — those who consume the most articles/pages. Often, less than 5% of these kinds of visitors account for nearly 50% of your page views. And they have very little barriers to exit.
  • (and)

  • Aggregators like Huffington Post will still find ways to deliver your content for free and often with more engaging technologies since they don’t have to invest much in content creation.

Narisetti also makes a point that I think many newspaper and magazine publishers miss, which is that media companies are trying to charge readers for what amounts to a traditional website-reading experience (or an even more crippled one, given the “walled garden” nature of many iPad apps) at the same time that new display and distribution models such as Flipboard and Zite and TweetMag are offering something much more appealing, and free.

Scrolling on Web sites has always been a poor experience for consuming news. Now, just as new devices and digital experiences — none invented by major news brands — create richer engagement outside our sites, we are talking about charging readers for sub-optimal Web site consumption.

Arianna Huffington by World Economic Forum

When it comes to solutions, Narisetti suggests a couple of potential answers, including some kind of licensing scheme that would take advantage of the aggregation of mainstream media content by outlets such as The Huffington Post. But he admits that there’s no guarantee any of these will work — which is good, because trying to license content to web aggregators seems like a losing proposition to me, or at least not the kind of business that is going to produce a huge amount of income for traditional publishers.

An imagination deficit

In terms of what media companies can do, I think the Washington Post editor is right when he says that the biggest challenge facing the industry is what he calls “an imagination deficit.” Instead of just trying to charge for existing content, he says more organizations need to take risks with their business model.

The problem is that most mainstream media entities are not designed for experimentation, and in many cases the way they function hasn’t changed noticeably in decades. Few have taken as dramatic a step as the Journal-Register Co., where CEO John Paton has reversed the traditional structure of a paper and put digital staff in charge of the entire operation. And only a few have set up the kind of “skunk works” labs or spinoff units that can experiment freely or come up with things like News.me, as Anil Dash of Activate Media recommends in a presentation I wrote about recently.

It’s true that some media companies are making small efforts to change the way they do things, or trying new tools or ways of reaching users — the way that Brian Stelter is with Tumblr at the New York Times, or the way that his colleague Nick Kristof does with his use of Facebook (ironically, Narisetti himself caused a minor firestorm on Twitter in 2009 when he made some critical comments about the Washington Post‘s new social-media policy, and later briefly cancelled his account).

But these kinds of experiments, however worthwhile, are largely incremental changes. And as Narisetti correctly points out in his piece, during times of significant disruptive change, “there isn’t time or room for incrementalism.” Does that mean the Washington Post is planning some ambitious online moves? Let’s hope so — someone has to.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user David Reece