Should the new owner of The Washington Post dump the print edition? What should its digital online strategy and tactics look like, both in terms of contents and platforms?
The questions stated above might not fall into Jeff Bezos areas of sharpest expertise. But there is no shortage of smart people within The Washington Post -- at least a core group eager to seize their new owner's "keep experimenting" motto and run with it.
What can he do? For today, let's focus on editorial products.
#1. The printed newspaper. Should The Washington Post dump its print product altogether? The short answer is no. At least not yet and not completely. Scores of digital zealots, usually with a razor-thin media culture, will push for the ultimate sacrifice. But in every market -- Washington, London, Paris -- there still exists a solid base of highly solvent readers that will pay a premium for the print product. This very group carries two precious features for newspaper economics: One, they are willing to pay almost any price to have their precious paper delivered every day. For a proof of that statement, see how quality papers repeatedly hiked prices in recent years, $2 or €2 is no longer a psychological threshold. Hefty street prices helped many to offset the decline of advertising revenues. Keeping the printing presses running offers a second advantage, the ads themselves: They gave lost ground, but the remaining print ads still bring 10 or 15 times more money per reader than digital versions -- which is, let's be honest, a complete economic failure of digital news products.
How long will it last? I'd say around five years. It actually depends of the evolution of the print product. Look at this weekend paper's layout:
Is there anyone at The Washington Post who seriously believes this paleolithic visual will help retain readers?
Bezos should bring in a team of modern art directors from abroad. One such example is Innovation Media Consulting, an organization that works in many countries and has a great track record (I know one of Innovation's partners well, Juan Señor, but I have no interest whatsoever in the firm.) Visually, the Post should consider a new layout (the Berliner format is a much better fit for tomorrow's print than the old broadsheet). Also, to get a much-needed glimpse on what's going on outside the Beltway, management should use their Amazon account to buy copies of the excellent Best Newspapers Design compilation.
Regarding the national vs. local/regional question, to me, the debate is settled: There is no point at having a physical daily newspaper with a national reach, period. (This could change if, one day, the Post is down to just one thick weekend edition.) Last August, in a remote trading post of Northern New Mexico, I found a fresh copy of the New York Times, most likely printed in Denver or Santa Fe, four hours truck drive from where I was (just have a look at this Google Map featuring the NYT printing plants locations to see my point). National + global scope belongs to digital.
#2. Digital products. The plural is important because, for a news company such as the Post, no single focus will do. At least three avenues ought to be considered: Web, mobile and tablets. (For the moment, we'll put the Web aside, where The Post is doing great.)
For all publishers, mobile is way more tricky than initially imagined: as long as we can't integrate content subscription in cell carrier billing, it will be difficult to have people pay for it -- except if we consider some kind of in-app purchase for specialized contents. As for advertising on mobile, it now grows in "spectacular" fashion -- going from the infinitesimal to insignificant. Furthermore, when comparing their product line to pure players such as Circa, we see how legacy media experienced difficulties in catching the mobile wave (see a previous Monday Note) or Pocket. The Post better work in that direction.
Tablets promise much better monetization. For this, assess the rate of iPad ownership among the Post's readers (I bet it must be around 60%). Unfortunately, in the old press, the current rationale calls for flavors of print replicas, usually based on a PDF. As I'm writing this paragraph, I'm trying to download this morning's Sunday edition of the Post for their iPad app; I'm stuck at about 20% of the download. (I certainly won't ridicule the Post's occasional glitches since it still occurs too often at my own paper-- and I'm the one responsible...)
Why are digital publishers like us still struggling with this? It's because we are stuck with a technology -- namely PDF -- that wasn't designed for low download times, nor for interaction with the user, enhanced contents, social sharing, etc. Plus, many of us can't depart form the idea that readers need to find on our apps the exact page look and feel, column structure and general layout of the print version. That assertion becomes less and less valid as the number of online readers keeps growing. That audience can become several orders of magnitude larger than the print edition's readership: Simply consider that the NYT has 50 million people who are in contact with its online version one way another (including the very long tail), that's more than fifty times it's print circulation on any weekday.
Granted, a news product must have a visual identity, recognizable in every possible form, but that certainly doesn't mean sticking to a 1993 technology with guys like us trying to keep outdated stuff alive, like a Havana car repairman nostalgically tinkering with a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air...
Jeff Bezos must keep one important things in mind: The modernization of print media has always been driven by the magazine industry, not by newspapers: From graphic design, to marketing, to advertising, weeklies and monthlies have lead innovation for decades. Now, as their print vector is dying, many of them tend to innovate on digital. They're not doing it equally well, of course: a large group such as Condé Nast is pathetically backward -- most of its titles offer only ultra-basic and unstable apps -- but many publications (Fast Company, Business Week) made the leap forward with digital magazines really designed for the tablets. Even the NYT is about to launch a digital magazine for tablets that will feature great productions such as the Pulitzer Prize winning Snow Fall. So will ProPublica, I'm told.
The Post should get rid of the cumbersome PDF legacy and switch to a full blown e-newspaper for iPad, generic Android tablets and Kindle Fire. There is no shortage of inspirational works available in the AppStore and in Apple Newsstand: Longform for the curation (my favorite weekend readings), The Magazine, TNW and more, all filled with interesting ideas or features...
To further stimulate innovation Jeff Bezos should call in firms able to genuinely think outside of the box such as Ideo or smaller shops who design great selling apps like Caroline+Young (the dataviz app mem:o), the people who did the sketching app Paper53... Personally, I'd even go as far as picking up the brain of great architects like Norman Foster, Rem Koolhas or workspace specialists NBBJ who have been commissioned to build Amazon new headquarters... It would be the most enthralling experiment to mix such great and diverse design talent pool with the Post's journalistic excellence...