Y Combinator, a venture firm specializing in seed funding startups, recently released startups they would like to fund including a “New News”. The partners of Y Combinator asked this year’s crop of applicants to consider what a newspaper would look like now if it was built from scratch.
I am a closet enthusiast for the newspaper industry and ravenously consume any blog post, op-ed piece, or comment my feed reader can pick up. I will gladly insert myself into any conversation on “Saving the Newspapers” despite my industry experience being limited to a jaunt as a Forum Columnist for my college newspaper.
In my columnist days, my main concerns involved getting beer drinkers their due respect and ridiculing the Bush administration (still a fun hobby). I certainly have no inner knowledge of how a newspaper functions, generates revenue, or handles overhead.
Despite my fledgling knowledge of the newspaper industry, I feel that I am qualified to tackle the New News challenge (at least in a blog post).
Here’s how I see the New News:
A future newspaper’s structure should be financially motivated. A new newspaper would need to consider what content can be obtained cheaply and what content requires substantial investment.
- Subscribe to AP & Reuters News Service and Republish Breaking News
It makes zero financial sense to compete on breaking news. Users will turn to their trusted news source to find breaking news. Period. The New York Times is not going to take market share from the Wall Street Journal by competing on which can produce the best breaking news coverage.
- Crowdsource Commentary
Commentary can provide a ton of value (think Thomas Friedman or George Will), but it can also readily be outsourced to individuals looking to share their opinions. Newspapers nationwide receive hundreds of op-ed submissions weekly. Take advantage of writers looking for exposure (see Mashable or Huffington Post) or even charge them.
- Pay the Big Bucks for Investigative Journalism
Investigative journalism should be the heart of any newspaper. A free press has defined America. And, surprise, it sells well. A current look at best sellers includes Catastrophe and In Fed We Trust. Blow hard liberals and right wingers (tough to call them conservatives) can sell newspapers if you can pay them. ESPN Insider charges readers for insider information. Solid investigative journalism provides a competitive advantage, and new businesses must have that advantage.
With much of the future newspaper’s content not produced in-house, the future newspaper can be a lean, mean aggregator-fighting machine. The newspaper does not need reporters for breaking news or weekly op-ed columnists or even a sales team (I discuss this under Revenue). Investigative reporting can be done by free lancers. So what’s left?
Someone has to weed through the crowdsourced op-ed submissions and edit the investigative reporting. A future newspaper editor would be responsible for managing freelance sports, business, and political writers and getting their best work out of them. The editor will also be responsible for ensuring the unpaid contributors contribute regularly.
I may be biased, but I think the future newspaper would be better off with an experienced web developer than an experienced sales team, writing staff, or even editor. The web team would be responsible for putting content online, integrating the site with social media, analyzing web traffic, and countless other tasks.
Drop down categories of Front Page, Business, Sports, Entertainment, etc. should be a thing of the past, but almost universally online newspapers use a drop down model. Future newspaper readers are not going to have to flip through Section A to get to the news they want, they are going to subscribe to feed readers for specific keywords, search the site, or find the article from an aggregator or search engine. The future newspaper is going to have to address how future readers will find their news.
- Search Engine Friendly
Newspapers are starting to get this, and so I will skip it. If you are a newspaper editor and are not addressing SEO, I suggest you contact this online publication SEO expert.
- Topic Pages
The New York Times has topic pages for many of the subjects it covers. For example, Barack Obama’s topic page includes all the recent articles, photos, and videos that mention the President. The future newspaper will enhance topic pages by incorporating Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, etc. feeds. Topic pages should be created dynamically using a tool such as Reuters Calais to sparse tags from articles.
- Feeds & Search Feeds
RSS will eventually be universally adopted, and so the future newspaper must supply feeds. Feeds should be available by category, author, and topic. Furthermore, readers should be able to set up feeds from searches on the site much like users can set up feeds from Google, Twitter, and Delicious searches.
The future newspaper must also have a mobile edition. Newspapers for mobiles will not simply be shrunk down text links but will include mobile icons and applications. Readers on mobile devices will have a completely different experience than those reading from a desktop or Kindle – an experience built specifically for them.
- Drop Down Categories
Drop down categories will remain. Future browsers who do not have a clear idea of what they are looking for will want to readily find the Opinion or Sports section.
Online newspapers, like any other company, need to promote their wares. Most current newspapers take advantage of “email this article” and social bookmarking features, but the future newspaper will be much more plugged into the social media landscape.
- Facebook Connect
By logging into Facebook directly from an online newspaper, readers can immediately share stories with their friends on the social network. But, this just scratches the surface. The future newspaper will create Facebook apps that integrate with the news. For example, readers could create a custom tab on their Facebook profile that displays only the news they care about.
- Social Media Outposts
Future newspapers cannot rely on readers to come to them; future newspapers are going to have to go the reader. Newspapers are going to have to aggregate their own content on Twitter, Facebook Lite, iPhone apps, etc. Readers will be able to choose how and where they get their content.
How come I can fill out a crossword on my iphone, but I have yet to see an online newspaper with an interactive crossword? Where are the comics online? The future newspaper will have fun and games side by side with breaking news.
Salespeople are expensive, and so the future newspaper simply will not have them. Future newspapers will take advantage of ad networks to supply their advertising. Currently, most online newspapers use an ad network to sell remnant ad space but as behavioral targeting improves, future newspapers can rely solely on ad networks to supply relevant ads to their readers.
- Subscriptions (not pay per post)
Readers are willing to pay for content, but it is up to the future newspaper to determine which content. A decent web analytics platform and a savvy analyst should be able to determine what content the newspaper can and cannot charge for, but the future newspaper will also regularly test charging for different types of content.
- RSS Feeds & Social Media Property Advertising
Because readers are not all going to get their content from the online newspaper itself, future newspapers are going to have to monetize their RSS feeds and social media properties. Google already offers advertising on RSS, and Facebook apps such as Al Venda and Sponsored Tweets are creating ways to monetize social media.
- Facebook Connect (again)
Facebook Connect has the greatest potential for serving users relevant ads. Facebook has loads of demographic data and marketers can currently target users by demographics on Facebook. By implementing Facebook Connect, future newspapers could serve ads to readers based on their demographic data.
- Google AdSense
Google is not going to bend over in the ad network battle. Google has launched Google Profiles to start gathering user demographic data, and Google’s AdSense UI & Analytics are far superior to Facebook.
- Behavioral Targeting
Behavioral targeting is become more advanced, and so the future newspaper is going to need to be ready for the next innovation. Newspapers are going to have to provide readers with ads for products they actually want and ultimately, share it with them directly. For example, the Portland Trailblazers recently released 40th anniversary jerseys. The future newspaper would recognize that I regularly read columns on the Blazers and send me (email, RSS, Twitter, fan page update, etc.) a promotional discount on the new jerseys.
So in short (if anyone has made it this far), I see a future newspaper that could be run by one editor and a web team. I see no need for a sales team. I picture high integration with social media and news intermixed with fun. A future newspaper will take advantage of search engines and aggregators rather than be threatened by them. Furthermore, the future newspaper will have multiple social aspects and readers can find & enjoy the newspaper by whatever medium fits them. Finally, the future newspaper will do all of this at 1/1000th of the cost of current newspapers.
This is the first in a series where Anvil focuses on the future of news. Please read the second in the series Social News and join the discussion on Twitter by adding the #futureofnews hashtag to your update. I would definitely appreciate any comments.