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NZ"s Own Rupert Murdoch?

17 July 2009

Have you noticed that Aardvark's news-links page has been carrying regular links to stories running on the NBR website?

Although I used to carry a very occasional link, the sudden increase in their number coincided with the arrival of Chris Keal over at the NBR. His columns and stories on technology-related topics are excellent and well worth a heads-up.

In fact, Chris's work has regularly placed NBR ahead of the traditional NZ Herald (now quite woeful) and Stuff (not much better) as a source of news and information on the local tech industry and its products/services.

What's more, the NBR as a whole has become a site well worth a visit every day.

Their "up to the minute" coverage of important issues is fresh and makes for an enjoyable (as well as informative) read.

Then they had to go and ruin all this hard work.

Does anyone remember NBR's first foray into the world of online publishing?

It was back in the 1990s and they figured that it would simply be a case of throwing their content up on a website and charging people for access on a subscription basis.

Not only was their site a bit of an abomination, but the model was fatally flawed.

Very few people wanted to pay for the privilege of reading stories copied from the print edition and pasted to a webpage.

It failed dismally and within a year or two, all that was left of the NBR's megalithic, very expensive white elephant was a simple corporate website.

Then, a little while back, the NBR thought they'd have another go.

Having learned from past mistakes, they took tiny steps instead of rushing in with all cheque-books blazing and trying to run before they could walk.

The result, as it appeared as of yesterday, was a brilliant site.

Great content, good presentation, facility for interaction with users by way of feedback forms and hardly a single bad aspect.

Unfortunately, the wheels have fallen off that beautiful trolley with the announcement that they'll be reintroducing the concept of "premium content" paid for by a subscription.

Now, while the WSJ Online has survived using that model, it just isn't going to work here in NZ. It's been tried many, many times by the likes of NZ Herald, and even NBR itself. It's a foolish man who doesn't learn by experience, or the experiences of others.

NBR have woken up to the sobering fact that the existing ad-funded online publishing is broken. There's just no way to support a good quality publication like the NBR using the meagre revenue that online advertising generates. End of story.

However, if advertisers aren't willing to pay for this content to be published, what on earth makes NBR believe that *readers* will pay? Especially in an era when they expect online content to be free.

Actually, I thought they *might* just get away with it if they'd had a sensible subscription rate in mind -- but the $180/year means that the percentage of their existing online readership that actually ante's-up with the cash will be very very low. What's worse, every time a non-paying reader encounters the "bugger off, this is for subscribers only" message, they'll be less inclined to return to the site -- hence ad-revenues may also decline.

Unless they're very, very lucky, this move could see overall revenues from the NBR's online presence actually decline rather than grow.

Barry, no matter how many times you re-introduce a flawed business model, it's just not going to work.

The final "insult" that will do NBR no favours at all is Coleman's claims that:

"And to add to the madness it has been the aggregators that have profited the most from the supply of that free news copy. Worse still the model has spawned a huge band of amateur, untrained, unqualified bloggers who have swarmed over the internet pouring out columns of unsubstantiated “facts” and hysterical opinion"

Perhaps now you see the reasoning behind the title of today's column?

I'm sorry but Barry clearly doesn't "get it". As a publisher, he's mired in the 1990s and because of this, I feel sorry for him.

He's slagging off the very thing that (I believe) could be leveraged to turn the NBR (or any other online publisher) into a highly successful and very profitable operation.

I wonder which will win - Coleman's ego or his business savvy?

If he's really out to hike the bottom line and turn into a money-maker rather than a cost-centre, he's got to drop the last-century attitude.

Hell, when I was publishing 12 years ago I was getting this kind of backward-looking attitude from news publishers -- you'd think they'd have woken up to the fact that they're trying to kill the very thing that could be harnessed to become their salvation.

I also wonder if Barry was thinking of me when he wrote:

"Most of these “citizen journalists” don’t have access to decision makers and are infamous for their biased and inaccurate reporting on almost any subject under the sun (while invariably criticising professional news coverage whose original material they depend on to base their diatribes)"

Yes, I've been harshly critical of the MSM and the increasingly poor job they're doing of late. But wake up Barry, this is an *opportunity* for NBR to show that it's not shackled by the constraints that cripple the MSM. Any organisation that responds to valid criticism by simply attacking its critics is never going to win.

If Barry was to step back a moment, put his "pragmatism hat" on and consider looking at the current situation as a businessman, rather than an old-school publisher who sees his comfortable business model crumbling around him, there's a great opportunity sitting in front of him.

With the right inspiration, guidance and vision, NBR could become an innovative publisher that creates new models and sets the standards that other publishers would aspire to.

Yes, it *is* possible to make a snot-load of money by publishing news content online (I did it myself with but you've got to be prepared to abandon the old (failed) models to which you cling.

To this end, if Barry wants to drop me a line, I'll be glad to talk about the visions *I* have for the future of *PROFITABLE* online news publishing. I'm not here just to criticise, I'm more than happy to lend a hand.

Where will be in 12 months time?

Well that's really up to Barry Coleman isn't it?

What do you think NBR ought to do?

Will you be spending $88 (normal rate $149) for six month's access to NBR's premium content?

Do you feel less inclined to visit those websites that pop up "subscription required" pages just when you think you've found a story you might like to read?

What could possibly have changed so much that the subscription-based model which previously failed so dismally for NBR might work today?

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