online publishing

Ongo… where?

Ongo is an ambitious digital kiosk. Launched last week, it was founded last year by Alex Kazim, a high-tech executive who worked at Ebay, Skype and PayPal. Kazim lined up an impressive group of investors: Gannett, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the venture capital firm Elevation Partners whose portfolio includes Facebook, Yelp and Palm (now part of HP). Altogether, Ongo raised $12m, an unusually large amount for such a project (marketing activities will consume a large fraction of the company’s funding). Headquartered in Cupertino, California, led by a mechanical engineer, Ongo carries more Silicon Valley DNA than its media siblings. As an advocate of greater technology input in media companies, I’d say it’s a good thing.

Up to a point. I see Ongo as too much of an automated aggregator as opposed to an edited news product. In this respect, Ongo might be a good start, supported by a neat tech implementation (both on the web and on the iPad), but we’re not there yet.

Let’s have a look.

Business-wise, Ongo is a paid-for kiosk. For $6.99 a month, it includes a basic set of  publications. Then, you add titles of your own choosing. As you’ll see below, the bill builds up quickly:

In this simulation, I’m getting five publications for free. Then, for a hefty $35.96 per month, I get four more titles… that are available for free on the web!

Am I missing something?

This is counterintuitive enough to force to make two assumptions:
– Some of these titles will soon switch to paid-for models; this could be the case for the Boston Globe (part of the New York Times Company, itself about to roll-out its paywall next month — is the $14.99 rate a prelude to the coming standalone price?). Most of Ongo’s catalog is likely to follow; otherwise, there is no point in subscribing to the service. (As for the Guardian, to my knowledge, it is meant to remain free).
– Ongo founders bet the true value of their service is harboring in a single place paid-for publications that are currently disseminated all over the web (and therefore require separate logins and, soon, payments). This is a huge bet on the value of simplicity and convenience.

Strange pricing choices aside, Ongo’s concept faces two big challenges: interface design and the commitment of its main editorial drivers.

First, on the web or on the iPad, Ongo is flat and dry. Its designers have deliberately chosen to remove the layout or the visual identity that defines a title. Again, they bet on the convenience of having everything displayed on the same site. In another departure from the usual web page structure, they opted for a “skimmer” style, based on a panel-like navigation: no more scrolling here, you jump from one screen to another.

The result isn’t convincing. Ongo’s iPad edition shows every story at the same level. In the example below, the second screen of yesterday’s “Page One” (2nd screen of page 1, that’s novelty) mixes up a Taco Bell story drawn from USA Today and pressure on the White House to condemn Hosni Mubarak.

And should you select navigation by title (in the example below: the Washington Post), you will get this bizarre page structure in which a US representative’s dental ordeal is displayed on the side of the main Egypt article — while the secondary Egypt story is sent at the opposite corner of the page:

This is a perfect illustration for the limits of automated aggregation. Without a proper dose of human editing, of rearranging news streams to make them consistent with the news cycle hierarchy, any machine-driven system will inevitably produce contents structures disconnected from readers’ expectations. Serious news websites rely on well-trained editors for their home page or use A/B testing procedures, to determine on the fly which headline is the most likely to be clicked on. Even a captive — i.e. subscription based — clientele will not easily abandon its ingrained news reading ways.

The same applies to visual references. Print or digital newspapers, or web pure players, all give a great deal of thought to interface design. They strive for a combination of unique visual identity and easy navigation. Ongo simply cannot expect to attract or retain readers by encapsulating everything into the same dull layout. (We’ll come back to the issue of merging design and digital constraints in a future Monday Note).

The second challenge is what I’ll call the “broken toys pawned off to poor kids” syndrome. In 1990, when the world discovered the horrendous living conditions in Romanian orphanages, European families began giving toys to charities. Used toys, of course. Broken toys, in fact. Charities were understandably pissed. In business ventures, the “broken toys syndrome” occurs when a partner is so reluctant to play its role, that it keeps its involvement to a bare minimum. In Ongo’s case, two critical audience attractors — the New York Times and The Financial Times — are not really playing the game. The NYTimes feeds the platform with a selection of stories, many of them one or two days old. As for the FT, it provides so little content that it doesn’t even fill its allocated space on Ongo’s iPad screen (see below).

These two institutions should make up their mind: either they are on board with Ongo for a price consistent with their current (or future) rate — perhaps applying a discount if they want to push the new platform — or they stay inside their cosy walled garden and established brands. At this stage, Ongo presents the two “Times” as being part of its product. But, at this stage, these iconic papers are far from being really there. As readers quickly see through the scheme, this type of incentive isn’t going to help.

As far as subscribing to Ongo, although I expect to cough up about $600 this year for a wide range of digital news contents, I won’t flash my Visa card for Ongo — yet. Tomorrow, perhaps: this one-week old site has the brainpower, the backers and the funding to become the powerful platform for online news this industry badly needs.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Apple’s bet on publishing

Apple’s upcoming subscription plan is making large publishing companies hysterical. Rightfully so. Some of them built a complete business model for the iPad based on a commercial agreement that is now being revoked. Apple is not only changing the rules, but it does so in the worst possible way — in their usual cold My Way Or The Highway manner. But one of the most interesting aspects of the maddening change is the strategic thought behind Apple’s move.

Let’s rewind the tape.

When publishers began to create content applications for the iPhone and the iPad, they found the in-app purchase feature was the perfect monetization tool: one click on the “buy for $0.99″ button… another on “confirm”… Done. Simple, seamless, friction free. And a 30% cut for Apple’s content delivery and payments services.

Weirdly enough, breaking its well-known controlling habit, Apple left open the possibility for the publisher to sell subscriptions directly to the reader. From the app, the user who wanted to buy a subscription was redirected to the publisher’s website. There, bypassing the iTunes payment system, the publisher collected the required personal and billing data. This direct connection to the reader was so attractive it drove many publishers to build their own subscribers recruiting machine on it (some even take inspiration from wireless carriers and  subsidize iPads in exchange for a two years subscription).

In the treacherous transition to digital, retaining control over subscriptions is crucial. Magazines, whose historic readership is mostly based on subscriptions, insist on preserving this model in the digital world. To get an idea of the subscriber’s importance, consider the following: a newsweekly will spend $150-200 to recruit a print subscriber through tons of direct mail, gifts, special offers and incentives. For a yearlong subscription, all bonuses included, the per-copy price could go as low as 30 cents, while the newsstand price will be around $4.00 or $5.00. The explanation for the gap: advertising money, which represents the bulk of the industry’s revenue. A subscriber is, by definition, a regular consumer; it is part of a well-defined readership that won’t require a complex supply chain able to adjust the number of copies shipped to European airport kiosks or Chicago newsstands.

For daily newspapers, the equation is more complicated. With a few exceptions, their subscription base is not as strong as the magazines’s. This makes dailies more sensitive to copy sales fluctuations influenced by the news cycle, the look of a front page or even the weather. And, above all, the advertising market likes regularity. In the digital world, those who choose the paid-for model therefore want to gather as many subscriptions as possible. Forget the clever the single copy micropayment system, for digital publishers, subscriptions are the Holy Grail. A strong subscriber base will provide: a) a recurring revenue stream, b) a more attractive delivery medium for advertisers who like the subscription’s predictability and, c) cash “float” because subscription fees are paid upfront. In addition, the smartest publishers use CRM to increase the per-subscriber yield and sell ancillary products.

For publishers, regardless of price consideration, subscribers and their related data are critically important.

The bad news hardly came as a surprise to many of us who found strange that Apple allowed content providers to bypass its transaction system for the most promising part of their revenue stream. In the long run, how could Apple limit itself to its 30% cut on a $0.99 purchase, and leave a $100 or $150 yearly subscription unmolested? It was just a matter of time before Apple decided to plug this revenue leak. The grace period was probably the time needed to build a subscription system able to match the App Store’s global scale.

Apple could have acted nicely and notified publishers that, sometime in the first half of 2011, it intended to deploy a new version of its App Store along with its own subscription system — with the unpleasant effect of closing down the direct subscription loophole. Publishers would have bitched and moaned, but the parties would have negotiated a deal in which the Cupertino guys would have yielded one sixteenth of an inch to frustrated but resigned contents providers (come on guys… we all know it had to end that way). This is just a matter of balance of power. Apple will soon be a $100 bn/year company and the combined revenue of the US publishing industry both for magazine and dailies is less than $60bn.

No kid gloves in Apple’s secretive world. Three months ago, without explanation, Apple began withholding approval of new apps using the subscription loophole. Wondering publishers were left without answers.

Then came terse emails recalling the §11.1 of the App Store Review Guidelines :

11.2     Apps utilizing a system other than the In App Purchase API (IAP) to purchase content, functionality, or services in an app will be rejected

with the following the punch line :

For existing apps already on the App Store, we are providing a grace period to bring your app into compliance with this guideline. To ensure your app remains on the App Store, please submit an update that uses the In App Purchase API for purchasing content, by June 30, 2011.

Bam! Publishers, consider yourself “served” — as in subpoena, not service…

Needless to say, most media companies went ballistic. On this side of the Atlantic, anti-trust watchdogs have been called in. Last week, the French National Daily Publishers Association (SPQN) — encouraged by the Finance Minister Christine Lagarde(!) — said it will ask the Competition Authority to look into the matter. In Belgium, the Minister of Economy is prompting an inquiry into Apple’s possible breach of the law. The European Commission’s involvement is likely — and should not be overlooked by Apple.

Multiple lawsuits by antitrust bodies or trade associations could be seen as pointless: it will take years — in a market that moves at lightning speed — and it will burn huge sums in attorneys’ fees. On another hand, it could be a way to obtain better conditions in the App Store subscription system: a better rate than the usual 30% and, even more important, access to user data.

Frustrations aside, Apple’s move is not the end of the world. For the App Store, if Cupertino relinquishes control on a minimum of consumer data, the damage is bearable. As for pricing, a well-managed transaction platform with big volumes could cost as low as 15% of revenue, or less. If customers want the comfort and the ease of use of the App Store, fine. It would be foolish to ignore them. Simply, as a rule of good management, a premium platform should be reflected in the retail price: a subscription priced at $99 on the publisher’s platform should be set at $119 on the AppStore — this is similar to the situation where a MacBook is more expensive than a comparable Wintel laptop.

From a broader standpoint, Apple’s move could even result in an opportunity for publishers. Apple’s Apps system is fantastic for software or games, but not necessarily for content applications (see previous Monday Notes on the subject:  iPad publishing: time to switch to v2.0 , Rebooting Web Publishing Design , Key Success Factors for a tablet-only “paper” ). In fact, an HTML5 website, designed for the iPad and the iPhone could be a good solution: it could give access to any kind of store — proprietary or multi-titles such as a kiosk — in which publishers will retain control over every critical dial. For media store development, the technology is on the publisher’s side. Scores of vendors are about to propose one-click payments, from PayPal Mobile Express check-out to… cell phone carriers working on systems where users buy online and are charged on their mobile bill.

In other words, there is life outside Apple.

One of the most interesting questions is Apple’s underlying strategy. In a nutshell, Cupertino is betting on “many small” rather than on “few big ones”. Let me explain. Publishers, such as The New York Times, Condé Nast or Le Monde are good at managing subscribers; they purposely maintain sizable staffs and they want to replicate their know-how online. On the contrary, small publishers can’t come up with the resources required to go after subscribers. The new App Store is designed for them. Suppose a group of 15 good reporters, focusing their work on high value editorial. Monetizing their work is a headache. Now Apple comes and says:

“Guys: our full-feature App Store will take care of all your hassles. For a flat 30% fee of your sales made on iPhone and iPad (and maybe on Macs though the new Mac App Store), we take care of: content delivery, its referencing, the back-office, the payment system, and we wire the money to your bank account every month.  And, Hey!  If by any chance you want to sell ads within your app, we can do that too in return for a 40% fee. All you need to do is to focus of what you are good at –producing a sharp e-publication, whether it is a tech blog, or a nicely designed architecture magazine — and price it wisely (preferably low, forget about the physical newsstand). We take care of the rest. One more thing. Consider what we did with the iPod, the number of iPhone and iPad sold last year [see Jean-Louis' column below],  you get the picture: we are aiming at global domination for content delivery mobile devices.”

Say Apple makes this pitch to a respected blog making a mere ARPU of $2 per visitor and per year from ads. Will it resist?

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

iPad publishing: time to switch to v2.0

There is no way around this fact: the first batch of magazines adapted to the iPad failed to deliver. Six months after the initial excitement, the mood has turned turned sour. See the figures below, they show the downturn in circulation for the much publicized iPad versions of a few American magazines:
- Wired: 100,000 downloads in June, 22,500 in October and November : down 78%. According to the Magazine Publishers Association, that’s not even a meager 3% of the average print copy circulation for the first half of 2010 — for an iconic tech magazine…
- Vanity Fair: 10,500 in August, 8,700 in November, down 17% and less 1% of the print sales.  (These numbers include single copy sales and subscriptions, which represent the bulk of the print revenues for US magazines).

According to WWD, using figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, several high profiles glossies show the same pattern: iPad downloads are in sharp decline everywhere.

For this regular user, such numbers do not come as a surprise. I’ve been reading Wired and Vanity Fair in paper form for years. As a non-US reader, the benefit of the iPad version was obvious: instant availability, no need to look for a higher-end newsstand providing international fodder. Plus a serious discount: at a European kiosk, a glossy can fetch €9 or $12; on the iPad, it’s $3.99, I was getting a bargain for my monthly fix. Plus extras such as the occasional video, and the convenience of back issues loaded in the memory chip of my tablet…

What went wrong, then?

1 / Comparison kills. I began to harbor some doubts when traveling to the United States: I realized that, instinctively, I was picking up the very same magazines at newsstands. With the product available at the right combination of time, price and location at nearby kiosks, having it on my iPad suddenly lost its appeal.
A (retroactively obvious) fact emerges: a magazine designed for print is much better on, ahem… paper than on bits. The browsing experience, the photographs, even the sensation of reading long form articles are all more enjoyable on a physical glossy. Publishers lured themselves into thinking electronic convenience plus a dash of add-ons would fill the gap between paper and tablet. Nope, they didn’t. Once ubiquitous availability removed the storage advantage (which only appeals to the road-warriors segment), the magazine on paper won. (Newspapers are a different story).

2 / Convenience. OK, videos or interactive graphics are fun, but they can feel gadgety, creating a kind of visual noise that detracts from the reading experience. Also, the convenience of back issues stored on the device is oversold: in the paper world, when it comes to retrieving an old article, no one will dive into a pile of magazines anymore, that’s the internet’s job. Similarly, due to the rigid browsing experience on a tablet, very few will be tempted to leaf through back issues stored on their device. Carrying a year’s worth of non-searchable issues is therefore useless.

3 / Execution. As I write this column, I download the January 3rd edition of the New Yorker. At least, I’m trying to. The mostly black & white weekly weighs about 100 megabytes and the download stream is erratic. The latest issue of Vanity Fair took several days to finish downloading. (To be fair, the 700 Mb of the latest Wired issue, loaded with videos, was done in a matter of minutes, while the previous one took a solid hour).
Here is what is acceptable: The Economist. Wether I pop up my iPad or my iPhone, the app knows I’m a subscriber and prompts me, showing with the latest issue’s cover. One button. Download. Twenty seconds on a wi-fi, less than two minutes on a 3G network. No login, no purchase confirmation. In addition, my subscription grants me constant and seamless access to the magazine’s web site.

4 / Price. Asking the consumer to pay the same price for an electronic product with a debatable advantage is a bad idea. Two ill-advised concepts (also applicable to newspapers) are at stake here.
Even if they deny it, many publishers are still in the “let’s defend the paper” mode. From a theoretical strategic perspective, a bold move would call for accentuating the decline of the doomed part of the business to give more oxygen to the promising one. Even though a measure of caution is understandable when going through such a transition, the dominant sandbag posture is by no means justified. Its effect is simply to delay the inevitable.
The second idea reflects a related tendency to yield to short-term financial pressures: an electronic magazine costs less to produce? Let’s first and foremost restore our depleted margins. This will have two dangerous consequences: for one, it discourages true innovation; and second, it opens a wide field for pure players unburdened by the past. Until now, publishers have been somewhat preserved by the high barrier to entry into their business: their financial power and business acumen notwithstanding, tech companies have been consistently unable to build a serious editorial venture. This might not last as traditional publications are shrinking and as a new breed of journalists will be more than happy to forgo some of their elders’ prestige in exchange for the freedom to create new and exciting publications.

It would be unfair to blame publishers such as Condé Nast for the the disappointing performances of their iPad first steps. Six months to adjust to a completely new medium seems acceptable. And the current experiences still produce some helpful lessons.

#1 Don’t try and replicate old concepts. Go for new ones. The balance between text and photographs, for instance, needs to be reinvented. The way images are presented and even produced must also be adapted to the new medium. This would be a better use of an art director’s team than, month after month, redesigning a landscape version of a magazine originally intended for a page, like Wired or Time have been doing.

#2 Make up your mind. For tablets, the choice will be between rich media magazine — again, yet to be invented – and content centric, Economist-like, i.e. less sexy but efficient. Ideally, news content for nomad devices should come in two flavors: one, loaded with multimedia, dedicated to tablets that will mostly connect through wi-fi, and another lighter version designed for the mobile phone’s small screen, which relies on low-speed cellular networks.

#3 Encapsulate the web. Personally, right before catching the subway, for a speedy and efficient offline reading, I’d love to have my iPad quickly download a set of 200 URLs of my favorites newspapers web sites. (In real life, cellular data networks still are painfully clunky). With the web, we take for granted things such as multi-layer reading, search and recommendation engines. Unless tablet publishers find a way to offer a unique e-magazine-like experience, these features will be missed.

#3 Price wisely. Don’t expect a wide adoption for the e-version of a magazine (or a newspaper) priced at the same level as the paper version. The pricing structure for online news content begins to emerge. In its recent report (PDF here), the Pew Research Center released data consistent with most publishers’ estimations. People who regularly buy content on the net are willing to spend about $10 a month, which could translate to a yearly ARPU of $100-$120.

If you thing that’s small, just consider the ARPU of advertising supported websites: very few are above the $10/year water line. Another conclusion of the Pew survey: the paid-for market remains highly segmented. Have a peek at this table:

Those who are willing to pay for content are definitely the richest and the most educated. Not necessarily bad news: after all, many businesses thrive in luxury markets….

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Rebooting Web Publishing Design

Let’s start by reviewing the basic ingredients of a successful online publishing operation:

1 / Quick load.
2 / Ease of operation and update
3 / Consistent visual identity
4 / Platform independence
5 / Open to the rest of the web
6 / Geared for transactions
7 / CRM and marketing-friendly

Why am I scrutinizing this? Because we are not there yet. But stay tuned: the future looks bright, it’s called HyperText Markup Language version 5, in short HTML5. (No worries, no program code in this column, just a few ruminations).

Back to our list:

1 / Quickly loading contents. So much work to do! I’m currently working on an evaluation of the loading speed of major news websites. Compared to e-commerce websites their performance is just appalling. Most of the news sites I measured are painfully slow to load, especially the ones with ads-saturated home pages. (We will publish the results sometimes next year, once we’ve validated our data).
Speed matters of applications as well. I have 100+ apps in my iPhone 4; about 40 are news-related, including many subscription-based ones. There, too, speed varies — with consequences. Over time, I saw my usage becoming directly related to the app’s swiftness: start-up time, fluid updates and content navigation. Intense competition for user time on the smartphone scene makes speed a key success factor.

2 / Smooth Operation. Only Rupert Murdoch can plan a digital newspaper updated once a day. I bet this feature won’t last. Way too un-internet. Except for the online magazine business, there is no way to think of digital news other than as being permanently updated. The medium demands it. If a production system is too complicated to be fed with fresh content (text, pictures, video), to link to other components (archives, related stories) that will generate page views, or to generate news alerts, that pig won’t fly.

3 / Visual ID. News brands are largely built on strong graphic designs. Right away, everyone is able to spot the cover of a magazine or a newspaper, even if its reduced to a thumbnail. Smartphones/tablets applications are good at displaying sophisticated graphics. On the traditional web, designers were — until now –  limited by HTML fonts and other display constraints.

4 / Platform independence. Ten days ago, I was in Boston at an INMA gathering where Filipe Fortes’ presentation gave me the idea for this column. Filipe is the CTO of Treesaver, a web design startup involving the renowned designer Roger Black. In his presentation, Filipe Fortes sums up the issue in two slides:

Combine all of the above, multiply the number of versions — either functional upgrades or bugs fixes — divide by market reach, apply monetization parameters and you get an idea of e-publishing’s hurdles.

5 / Openness. Social features, Facebook, Twitter, bookmarking etc., will keep growing as contributors to reading habits as well as to audience traffic. As far as we can see today, most of news related apps ignore this trend and are closed to the rest of the web (even sometimes to their own archives)

6/ The transaction issue. In this field, apps remain vastly superior by allowing many forms of friction-free payments. And even if Apple’s business model is open to questions (see previous Monday Note Key Success Factors for a tablet-only “paper”), it allows publishers — for subscriptions — to bypass their closed system and call the shots on pricing and customer relationship. It’s unclear how long this bypass will last, but this toleration is good news: the publishers destined to succeed in the online news business will be the ones able to convert most of their customers into subscribers (unlike with the physical kiosk model which with fluctuating one-at-a-time purchases).

7/ CRM. (For a complete definition of Customer Relationship Management, see here.) In the e-news business, CRM is another key success factor. Using “all means necessary”, publishers must retain and nurture the relationship with their customer. Big internet players such as Google or Apple, armed with their ability to manage large datasets, are very well positioned to profit from CRM. Fortunately, CRM vendors are many and competitive, able to serve businesses of all sizes, ranging from Open Source solutions such as SugarCRM, to SaaS offerings such as Salesforce.com, and more traditional products such as Oracle’s.

For most of the requirements in our list, HTML5 looks promising. In short, HTML5, is the latest iteration of the web language invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1994. The new version of the language makes wider use of JavaScript, a well-regarded scripting system that enables a world of features that, until now, were exclusive to Flash. I can’t add much to the debate between the respective merits Flash and HTML5, I’ll just suggest a visit to  this site, and a run through the demos in order to get an idea of newly advanced HTML5 capabilities. (A great story on the MIT Technology Review sums it up: The Web Is Reborn. The article is subscription-based, but it’s worth it. Previous free articles on the same topic here and here.)

To get a glimpse of HTML5’s potential for digital publishing, point your browser to Nomad Editions. It’s a small, e-publishing company that is also a Treesaver launch partner (story in Wired and in the NY Times). You’ll see a set of magazines, that load fast and display in crisp graphics, pictures and typefaces. And they works quite well on an iPad. Big media companies are showing interest: the Associated Press is getting a stunning prototype which merges the advantages of the richest news content with a magazine look and feel.

In Friday’s conversation, Treesaver’s CTO Filipe Fortes explained the advantages of HMTL 5 and his startup’s goal: “The main idea is to lower the cost of producing content and to display it in a attractive fashion. If you take applications such as Time, Wired, or The New Yorker, they are all done by hand in Adobe InDesign:  they do one version for portrait orientation, one version for landscape (like here for Time)…”:

“… They might have the internal resources to make two versions of their magazine, but what if they want to go to the upcoming Blackberry tablet or the rumored 7” iPad? Therefore, the idea is to retain branded design elements but make sure they’ll run in a low cost fashion on any platform”. Filipe Fortes mentioned apps for magazines where, today, costs range between $100,000 and $600,000, like the one developed by WonderFactory.

The spread of HTML5 depends on the creation of powerful Software Development Kits (SDKs). Unlike Apple’s controlled environment, development tools for HTML5 are still immature and barely organized. This scattered sector provides an opportunity for young companies such as SproutCore, Sencha or jQuery Mobile to build frameworks that could lead to a real ecosystem. But they’re still quite behind the sophistication of Apple’s proprietary development tools. On another hand, the emerging HTML5 playing field will lead to the creation of a new layer: pre-built graphic design components. Today, layouts are hand-coded, tomorrow they’ll be assembled using existing blocks. It will change the way apps are produced. That’s TreeSaver’s pitch.

Creating web sites or apps, or websites encapsulated in an app will soon be done for a fraction of the cost of developing an app today; the result will work across platforms and be easier to handle. In enabling such new development methods, HTML5 could combine advantages from both worlds: the Web’s ubiquity and openness and the performance of applications.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Key Success Factors for a tablet-only “paper”

Can it fly? Last week, Rupert Murdoch announced he was plotting a tablet-only newspaper. Or rather, an iPad-only paper — at first; other tablets would follow. The Daily, as it is to be called (how modest and innovative) is to be blessed by Steve Jobs Himself at a media event introducing the new venture. Initially, rumors pointed to a December 9th date; the latest gossip now says the unveiling could be delayed over “issues”. In any case, this is big news: a major media group, crossing the Rubicon to get rid of both paper and web, riding the Apple promotional machine (details and speculations in this story from The Guardian).

Well before the iPad was introduced last Spring, many of us had dreamed of a news product encapsulated inside a self-sustaining iPhone application. The advent of the iPad, with its gorgeous screen, only made the dream more vivid. Then, reality interfered. Even with the combined installed bases of the iPhone and the iPad’s, numbers didn’t add up, the dream news product wouldn’t make real money. Could it work this time under Rupert Murdoch’s rule?

Let’s return to Earth and tally the project’s pluses and minuses.

On the plus side

1 /  Let’s make quick work of the staffing issue. Media pundits contend you can’t run a serious daily with a staff of hundred as envisioned by Murdoch. Of course, you can have a roaring newsroom with 100 people! As long as such staff is focused on the paper’s core journalistic beats; in an ideal world, a newsroom should be staffed by a relatively small number of dedicated, well-paid, hard-working reporters and editors, managed by a flat hierarchy. This compact crew only needs to be supplemented by a carefully outsourced network of specialized people whose expertise, while highly valued, isn’t used often enough to justify full time employment. Exactly the opposite of our dying print dinosaurs.

2 / The tablet immersive experience. Like no other device before, the iPad has the ability to capture the reader’s attention: iPad “sessions” last much longer than browsing expeditions on the internet. According to TigerSpike, the very design company that built apps for News Corp, the average iPad session lasts 30 to 40 minutes (see story in PaidContent).

3/ The market. Rupert Murdoch is convinced that, soon, an iPad, or a competing tablet, will find its way in almost every household. And he is said to have been impressed by projections of 40 million iPads in circulation by the end of 2011. Spreadsheet magic! Millions of customers… On the revenue side, numbers can work. A 100 persons newsroom should cost no more than $12-15m a year to operate. Assuming $99/year pricing, netting $66 per user after Apple’s fee, plus $10 per user per year of premium advertising (after all, it is a qualified audience), the ARPU can land at around $80, which translate into 150,000 subscribers required to break-even. Sounds appealing.

On the minus side

1 / Closed environment, no links. That is the side effect of the “cognitive container”: an application such as the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian or the Economist, is by definition autistic to the rest of the web. No links to the outside world (except if it has an embedded browser like Dow Jones’ All Things D), and no relation to the social/sharing whirlwind. Some will appreciate the coziness of a newspaper without parasitic external stimuli, other won’t accept to be cut-off from the social Babel. It could be a matter of generations.

2 / The Apple business model sucks (for media). At first, Apple’s 30% cut of the retail price sounds great compared to the physical world where production and distribution costs devour 40% to 50%. Not so simple. First, you need at least five times more readers in the to offset the advertising revenue depletion associated with the move to the digital world.
Second, the tax issue. In many countries, in spite of intense lobbying by media  companies, digital products carry standard VAT. In France, where the VAT is set at 19.6%, internal analysis made by publishers showed that a high volume daily will net less in the AppStore than in a physical kiosk.
Third, Apple’s terms of use. They deprive publishers of two things : first, the ability to set prices outside of Apple-dictated levels (usually too high or too low) and, second, access to customer data, which make any CRM monetization impossible. The latter is, in itself a major deterrent to dealing with Apple. Of course, if Steve endorses Rupert’s project, the conditions could be quite different.

Mandatory

1 /  Exclusive and proprietary content. If Murdoch’s paper — or any tablet-only publication for that matter — is unable to produce truly original content, it is doomed. The internet is flooded by reverberating newsflows of all kinds, and free. Value will inevitably follow uniqueness.

2 / Pricing: simple and adjustable. No one knows what readers will ultimately: the iTunes model (multiple 99 cents transactions) or the cable-TV or Netflix flat-but-fat fees? To find out, the only way is to offer multiple pricing options. Problem is: it goes against simplicity and readability.

3 / Beyond Apple and perhaps beyond the app. For all of its advantages, betting only on the AppStore could be risky. The market will be overflowed by other vendors and operating systems. Hedging one’s bets will be key.
Maybe it would be worthwhile to look beyond the application concept. Instead of an autistic app, why not build adaptative web sites that will adjust automagically to the device used (tanks to the user agent technique)? As screen sizes differ from an iPad, for a Samsung Galaxy Tab, or for the  upcoming Blackberry Playbook (see this video), the tablet-dedicated site could adjust and optimize its rendering. In doing so, the service would remain part of the web, connected to its social features; it could operate on a much better business model than Apple’s, and there would be no hassle with the app store application process, upgrades, inexplicable rejections, etc.

4 / Speedy and simple. On both my iPhone and my iPad, the applications I no longer use happen to be the most complicated and the slowest. One such example is the New York Times app: it needs more time to load than it takes to flip trough several pages of the paper’s web site. On the contrary, the just released Economist applications are great. Two buttons on the main page : Download (10 seconds for the entire magazine) and Read. That’s all. And if I want to change the font size, it is intuitive: I pinch in or out, and the whole layout resizes. Interestingly enough, The Economist gives its subscribers the choice between a great website experience and the magazine look and feed of its sleek application (I’m curious to see which one will prevail, audience-wise). The beauty of this app resides in what that has been removed from it.

Meditate on this: this is at the very core of Apple’ design genius.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Ebooks Winners & Losers

Let’s come back to the ebook with more questions. There is no doubt: the digital book will find its place under the sun; its prospects look much better than those of the online press. In the first place, there isn’t an ingrained, now decade-old, habit of reading news for free on the internet. Second, the book (in its physical form) is the centuries-old incarnation of the “cognitive container”, with its unparalleled convenience and with a value attached to it. And third, it can’t be unbundled.

For the online press, on the contrary, more than 90% of online newspapers are available for free. The “cognitive container” is totally non-practical in terms of size, readability; the interface sucks: most broadsheets’ stories run on two pages but many readers don’t go beyond the jump. Lastly, the daily news is begging for unbundling (look at the Sunday edition of your favorite newspaper, with its ten plus sections).

What does the book gain by switching to the electronic format?
Three things:
- new formats with rich media appealing to reluctant books readers (the current Generations X and Y, mainly)
- enhanced capabilities such as search, ability to create a personal table of contents, or to extract and index snippets
- a complete overhaul in the production system, which will breed new market opportunities as editorial works, once finished, will enjoy instant worldwide availability.

Of course, obstacles remain. A recent survey conducted by Bain and Co listed eight obstacles in the way of widespread ebook adoption (PDF here).

Interestingly enough, said its authors Patrick Behar and Laurent Colombani, the nostalgia of the “paper experience” is disconnected from the generation factor: all age groups continue to enjoy the book as a physical object. This guarantees some level of coexistence between the two medias. But the authors also admit the two next barriers – the price of the device and reading comfort –  will fade quickly as Moore’s Law still rules, both for mass produced devices and for screen quality (see for instance Qualcomm’s Mirasol display combining the advantages of electronic ink and the color depth of LCD screen — see also this story in The New York Times). On the devices’ price, Bain & Co sees the following evolution and point to the thresholds required to convert purchase intents:

Using this backdrop, let’s now try to see how the different participants might fare. (For a close-ip on the digital rights issue, see last week’s Monday Note)

Manufacturers: uncertain. Users expect around a hundred dollars or euros for an e-reader and will soon expect three times this amount for a full color, full-feature tablet. To put things in perspective, a teardown analysis made by iSuppli shows the cost of components for an Amazon Kindle is $176 as the iPad reaches $264 and $214 for the Samsung Galaxy Tab. This gives an idea how thin margins are likely to be in the future. In other words, manufacturers who won’t be able to sell the blades (i.e. contents) along with the razor will have a hard time making any money. More

ebooks: trading digital rights, not files

There are many reasons to be bullish for ebooks. On the device side, the iPad set the standard (rather high) and triggered an intense competition among manufacturers and operating systems providers. On the people side, just take New York’s subway, or a high-speed train in Europe. And we’ve seen nothing yet: tablets prices will go down as cell phone carriers – and eventually media companies – subsidize e-readers. Before year-end, European telcos will offer the Samsung Galaxy — an Android-powered tablet — for €300 or less, preloaded with access to online bookstores and electronic newsstands. For the industry, this Christmas season is critical: tablet makers must secure defensible market territory before Apple’s probable roll-out of its next generation iPad.

The content side remains more complicated to figure out. A first phase is likely to consist of an extension of what we have today, i.e. a transaction system based of book files: text-based books or richer media products. The main players will remain Amazon, or the Apple iBooks store. But, in five to ten years, this way of dealing with intellectual content  will be seen as primitive.

The true revolution will be a shift from a files transaction system to a rights transaction system. This transformation involves radical changes in the way we think of digital content, books, videos or even games.

For now, let’s focus on books. Here is how it could work.

We’re now in 2015. I read books-related contents on a number of different devices: my smartphone, my high definition tablet, and even my PC some times. (I personally do not believe in TV for such products). I want spend a long weekend in Rome. Instead of buying a couple of books – one to organize my trip and another to use on location – I will buy rights to both.

As I download the books I bought rights to on an iPad or a Samsung Galaxy, the content takes advantage of specific screen features and displays large pictures, some of in 360° panoramic format and zoomable. My Microsoft tablet uses the extraordinary DeepZoom technology connected to the Bing Maps Live View

More

Expanding Into New Territories

In defining business strategies for modern medias such as online newspapers, the most difficult part is finding the right combination of revenue streams. Advertising, pay-per-view, flat fee… All are part of the new spectrum media companies now have to deal with.

The gamut looks like this:

As we can see, newspapers mostly consist of one product line, confined to the mainstream, value-added news category. By going digital, this segment is likely to lose most of its value (expect a 60% meltdown as expressed in revenue per reader). Therefore, for these companies, it becomes critical to expand into new territories already taken over by other players. For instance, big media outlets endowed with strong brands should go into commodity news and participatory/social contents. This doesn’t mean a frontal attack on Facebook or Twitter, obviously; instead, the new reality dictates using and monetizing through them (see last week’s Monday Note on Facebook monetization).

Ancillary publishing should also be considered a natural expansion: news outlets retain large editorial staffs that could be harnessed to produce high value digital books (see this earlier Monday Note on Profitable Long Form Journalism). The “Events” item, on the list/graph above, is more questionable, but it remains a significant source of potential income tied to the brand’s notoriety. I left aside the classifieds business: except for a few media groups (Schibsted all over Europe or Le Figaro Group in France) that boarded the train on time, positions are now too entrenched to justify an investment to gain a position in that segment.

Advertising is likely to remain the biggest money maker for the two dominant categories: Commodity/Participatory/Social Media and Mainstream Value-Added. Unfortunately, in its digital form, advertising has run in deflationary mode for the past decade due to flat (at best) CPMs, with huge inventories putting further pressure on prices.

Print doesn’t look great either as investments shift en masse to digital; this reflects the growing imbalance between time spent by users on print and advertising investments in the medium. According to Nielsen Media Research, the Internet now accounts for 38% of time spent but only for 8% of ad spending; newspapers are on a symmetrical trend as they captured 20% of advertising dollars for only 8% of users’ time. More

Aggregators: the good ones vs. the looters

News aggregators have grown into all shapes and forms. Some are truly helping the producers of original content but others simply amount to mere electronic ransack.

My daily media routine starts on Techmeme. It is a pure aggregator — actually an aggrefilter, as coined by Dan Farber, at the time editor-in-chief of Cnet, who recommended it. This little site combines simple concept and sophisticated execution. As shown in its “Leaderboard”, it crawls a hundred sources and applies a clever algorithm using 600 parameters. More importantly, it adds a human editing layer. In this Read Write Web interview, Techmeme’s founder Gabe Riviera recently discussed his views on the importance of human editing, how it allowed him to fine-tune the his site’s content. The result is one of the most useful ways of monitoring the tech sector. And, since Gabe Riviera also launched Mediagazer last year, I use it to watch the media space. (Another iteration of the concept, Memeorandum, aggregates political news; for reasons I don’t quite understand yet, it doesn’t work as well as the two others.)

Techmeme and Mediagazer benefit the news outlets they mention. Story excerpts are short enough to avoid being self-sufficient and the hierarchical structure works. (Self-sufficient excerpts result in the aggregator not sending back traffic to the source — I’ll come to that later.) These twin sites are definitely among the best of their kind, resulting in a sound six persons business, not the next Google News but doing OK financially.

In fact, in their very own fields, Techmeme are Mediagazer are more useful than Google News. By crawling through so many sources, with the sole help of a powerful (but aging) algorithm, Google News ends up lacking finesse, precision and selectiveness. It’s a pure product of the engineering culture the search giant is built on, where obsessive hardcore binary thinking sweeps away words like “nuance”, “refinement”, “gradation”.

At the other end of the aggregator spectrum, we have The Huffington Post, one of the smartest digital news machine ever and, at the same time, the mother of all news internet impostures.

In France, where true journalism is in a state of exhaustion, everybody wants to make “Un Huffington Post à la Française“. The dream hardly comes from the best and the brightest. No, the fantasy agitates click-freaks building “traffic machines” on the generous losses their investors are willing to put up with. So, in spite of the red ink, why do they yearn for their Huffington Post so much? One word: Numbers. As recalled in Newsonomics story, in one year, the HuffPo doubled its audience. And now, the HuffPo is nibbling at the NYTimes.com’s ankle: 13m unique visitors/month (Nielsen) vs. 19m for the Times. The HuffPo is a privately-held company with abundant funding and therefore does not release financial numbers. Revenues are said to be in the $15m range, and profitability is “near”…, this according to fascinated bloggers who kissed the HuffPo CEO Eric Hippeau’s ring. More

A Toolkit for the Cognitive Container

We now live in an apps world. “The web is dead” shouts Chris Anderson, Wired’s editor-in-chief. To make his point, he teamed up with Michael Wolff, a Vanity Fair writer. According his latest theory, the internet is taken over by mobile applications, and the web as we know it, will be soon dead. Wired produces a Cisco-originated graph (below) showing the decrease in “web” traffic, down to a quarter of the traffic of the internet. The other 75%, says Anderson, include video, peer-to-peer, gaming, voice-over-IP telephony, a large part of it encapsulated in apps, blah-bla-blah.

Well. Two things. To begin with, Chris Anderson isn’t the first to notice the rise in applications used to access the internet. Every news outlet’s digital division witnesses a sharp increase in its apps-related traffic. Here in France, Le Monde just said its iPhone apps now contribute about 20% of its entire traffic; its iPad application (a bit crude but efficient reader) has been downloaded 150,000 times. This is just the beginning as publishers are working on new apps, for the iPhone, the iPad, but also for Android, Windows 7 for Mobile and even Bada, Samsung’s proprietary OS. Many publishers forecast a share of 30% of their traffic originating from mobile devices. This is consistent with Morgan Stanley’s predictions of smartphones shipments overtaking the PC two years from now (see below).

Such trends, when repackaged in Chris Anderson’s craft, ascend close to papal encyclical status (that Anderson’s particular skill; in a recent lecture, the British journalism professor George Brock calls him “a professional exaggerator”). Never mind the data he presents are not of the utmost rigor. As we can see here, he magnifies the demise of the web.

But byte-flow analysis is misleading. A more accurate measure would be time spent on the traditional web versus apps. For instance, neither Anderson nor the graph say in which category Facebook traffic falls. Is it an app? A web-based service? All we know is American users spends a quarter of their time on it. I wouldn’t dare wrecking such an attractive intellectual scaffolding with mere facts, but we can’t compare video and text-based pages on the basis of their byte-stream. I did the test: a 3 minutes of You Tube video weighs 16 megabytes; the same time spent on text will only require a 20 kilobytes page, 800 times lighter. (The 8000 words Anderson/Wolff story — devoured in 15 minutes at a normal reading speed, weighs only 117 kilobytes). When measuring things, the metric does alter the perspective…

Nevertheless, Anderson’s fatwa is gaining traction, as did, in its time, his Long Tail theory. Later, Anderson amended the postulate, using the concept of “strong head” (mandatory if you expect to make money with the tail). His “Free!” edict was also updated with the Freemium notion – a paid-for model tied to an incentive. But no more sarcasm, such silicon snake oil is a charming ingredient of our e-times.

Caution with Anderson’s theory aside, there is no doubt the app phenomenon will significantly impact the way we consume news: apps might become their main cognitive container. More