News organizations can be forgiven for feeling that they’re in an endless cycle of Whac-A-Mole.
They’ve had fifteen years to get onto the Internet, and for much of that time the experience was limited largely to words and photos on a web page, accessed on a personal computer. But more recently, journalism has been blessed and bedeviled by a stream of follow-on innovations. As a result, most organizations have tried to develop new ways to report and distribute stories, and many are making substantial investments so their work will appear on attractive new devices. Their hope is that these new kinds of digital journalism will enhance companies’ earnings; their fear is that if they don’t adapt, they will lose audiences’ attention and the revenue it brings.
It hasn’t been easy. Video has been seen as a great way to get more sustained engagement, but many news organizations have found it to be expensive and difficult to produce. And even though ad rates are three to five times what regular display ads bring, video often doesn’t get enough traffic to attract substantial revenue. Mobile devices, meanwhile, provide consumers with greater access to news, but the small screen size can be a nightmare for designers and a poor display space for advertisers.
Tablets—particularly the iPad—have looked like a more immersive experience for readers, and a more likely venue for subscriptions and higher ad revenue. But their luster has dimmed as the dominant manufacturer, Apple, has insisted on charging high fees and controlling economically valuable information about customers. Each new device brings an additional level of complexity and expense. Not long ago, “convergence” was the keyword in news production, as television, newspaper, magazine, and pure online sites all started to look the same. Now comes a new “divergence,” in which online journalism organizations must distribute news into distinctly different modes of presentation.
The iPad has been a hit: Expectations are that about thirty million devices will have shipped by the end of 2011. But while analysts expect the iPad to capture more than 90 percent of the tablet market in 2011, competitors are entering the fray. Tablet manufacturers have announced that more than twenty-five brands will be available in 2011, at screen sizes ranging from five to eleven inches.
Audiences are fragmenting in other ways, too—in their interests and habits. The conflict is evident in the behavior of Michael Harwayne, vice president of digital strategy and development at Time Inc. Harwayne lives in Manhattan and takes the subway to work. He likes to read The Wall Street Journal on his commute, but lately the question has been: Which format works best?
Harwayne likes the Amazon Kindle. When the Journal became available on that device in the spring of 2009, he decided to pay an extra $10 per month for the convenience, though he was already paying $363 per year for the print and web editions. The Kindle price rose to $15 per month a year later.
But there was no connection between his print/online subscription and the Kindle edition, and Harwayne found it annoying to be billed separately. Then, in May 2010, came the Wall Street Journal iPad app, which he got as part of his overall subscription. It’s not that it was “free,” but because he didn’t have to pay a separate fee, it felt free. Still, he said, “I didn’t like carrying it and reading it on the subway, so I never actually canceled the Kindle until I had a lightweight alternative.”
In the fall of 2010, he was introduced to a Samsung tablet. He liked it more than the iPad, so he switched to the Journal’s Android version (which is also included in his core subscription to the paper) and finally canceled his Kindle subscription. But Harwayne wondered, “Why shouldn’t I be able to read the paper on any device I have?”
In March 2011, he learned that he’ll eventually have to pay an additional
$17.29 a month to keep his iPad or Android version of The Wall Street Journal. Through it all, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that Harwayne likes to read the print version of the Journal after a long day at work. Still, it “seems like a very strange consumer strategy,” he says.