Newspapers push to reclaim their online identities

Newspapers push to reclaim their online identities

Hyderabad: Newspaper editors and owners meeting in India have urged their industry to seize back the online publishing initiative from search engine “parasites" living off their work.

Speaker after speaker at the ongoing three-day World Newspaper Congress in the southern city of Hyderabad has argued that the current crisis in the newspaper industry requires a drastic rethink of Internet strategies.

With print advertising revenues in freefall, the search for real income from digital editions has become something of a Holy Grail for newspaper houses worldwide.

“One thing is sure, unless we protect and commercially exploit our high value content, the journalistic standards so important to our readers and to society will no longer be financially viable," said Timothy Balding, chief executive of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).

But options are limited, with WAN-IFRA warning in its annual world press trends update that “at no time in the foreseeable future" will digital advertising revenues replace those lost to print.

In a $182 billion press advertising industry, newspapers’ digital income amounted to less than $6 billion last year and is forecast by consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers to grow to no more than $8.4 billion by 2013.

For many editors and chief executives in Hyderabad, the villains in all of this are giant search engines such as Google which, they insist, are stealing their stories without sharing advertising revenue

“We are allowing our journalism -- billions of dollars worth of it every year -- to leak onto the Internet," said Les Hinton, the chief executive officer of Dow Jones Co., which publishes the Wall Street Journal.

“We are surrendering our hard-earned rights to the search engines and the out-and-out thieves of the digital age," he said.

Under fire from News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch and some other owners, Google offered an olive branch of sorts Tuesday, announcing it would let publishers set a limit on the number of articles people can read for free through its search engine.

But many executives argue that Google and its policies are only part of the problem.

“We have called Google a digital vampire and a parasite... but the truth is that this industry is the principal architect of its greatest difficulty today," Hinton said.

Seduced by an evangelical belief 10 years ago that websites supported by advertising were the future, they raced to make their content freely available online in the hope of a new revenue windfall that never materialised.

Users, the vast majority of them guided by search engines, viewed snatches of their content but did not linger, and advertisers soon realised that their budgets would be better spent elsewhere.

“Like an over-eager, middle-aged dad, desperate to look cool, we ended up dancing obediently to other people’s tunes," Hinton said.

For Hinton, the solution is to defy conventional wisdom that “free is best" and charge for online content -- as the Wall Street Journal does -- on the grounds that brand recognition and credibility will attract paying viewers and advertisers alike.

But for many newspapers, especially those in the highly competitive general news market, going it alone in bucking the free online access trend is more problematic.

Some advocate attracting a smaller, more loyal readership -- and therefore more advertisers -- to their free sites by prioritising content above the scramble for maximum search engine traffic.

“By simply seeking extra volume, we have devalued our content in the eyes of our users. We need to re-establish our brands," said Matt Kelly, associate editor of the British tabloid, the Daily Mirror.

“We need to build sites that perform well for humans, not search engines," Kelly said.

Others urge the exploitation of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter which they say can bring repeat readers -- especially younger ones -- to their websites in far greater numbers than the search engines with their click, consume and move-on users.

The New York Times main Twitter account has 1.7 million followers.

Another possible model for the future is being pioneered by a “personalised" newspaper service, Niuu, which launched in Berlin several weeks ago.

Niuu licenses individual pages from 20 newspapers including the New York Times, Tagesspiegel and Bild. Visitors to its website can create their own tailor-made newspaper by choosing the topics and pages that interest them.

The finished print product is then delivered to their home at a cost of €1.8 ($2.7) a pop.