News is free – packaging it isn’t

It’s a simple inescapable fact – news is free.

It will happen at any time of the day and at any point in the world. It use to be that distance is what made it hard for people in one part of the world to know what was going on in another part. With the advent of newspapers it became much easier to keep up with current events – even though the current events might be a couple days old by the time you actually got to read about it. In the process though we became accustom to the idea that newspapers, radio and later television were our eyes to the world of news as it was happening.

This was great for the people who owned those newspapers, radio and television stations because it provide them with a great way to capture people’s attention. Attention that was also used to show them advertisements about all the cool new things that they could buy. Companies with products to sell were more than willing to pay for that ability to get people’s attention – the larger the audience the more they would pay. Fortunes were made in the news business – not on the news itself but on all the packaging that surrounded those little news bites.

Then along comes the big bad Internet and suddenly news was instantaneous and if you knew where to look it was free as well. Sure smart operators would follow the typical business model of including ads with the news; but equally smart surfers either grew blind to them or found ways to remove them. Suddenly the the major providers of the news found themselves with a business model that didn’t work the same way it had in the past.

Scrambling to catch up with the direction the web was heading news providers of the old media hopped on the whole social media train and made their news free but still wrapped in advertising. It was their hope that this hold over from the old days of packaging news would hold true in today’s so-called freenomics markets – the problem was that the economy tanked and along with it so did the ad dollars. For most of the new media bloggers this might mean tightening the belt a little more but this is a situation that they are much better equipped to survive.

Old media on the other hand as it tries desperately to make the transition to a web based world is carrying too much baggage. It is still steeped in a world where they desperately need ad sales to shore up the huge expenses of maintaining a physical world printing and delivery system; and do it while the news is still worth something to the advertisers. This is one reason why we have seen a resurgence in discussions among the old media mavens about bringing back subscriptions; or that new fangled idea of micropayments. In other words return the majority of their content back behind a paywall.

In an excellent post at CenterNetworks one of the questions that Dan Lewis asked was – What broke?

While Dan suggests that it was the arrival of the Web that broke everything I would agree in part; but I would also suggest that people have figured out that you don’t need all the fancy packaging in order to be really up to the minute aware of what is happening in the world. This is the problem that the old news industry hasn’t been willing to grasp as they struggle forward.

Magazines and newspapers The interesting thing is that for all the bitching we read about advertising on the web the biggest complaint is that it is very rarely relevant to what the reader is interested in. It’s not so much that that the packaging of the news has failed it is that it is very rarely packaged in a way that add any value to what we are reading – regardless of what the ad networks would have us believe.

Combine that with operations; and ways of doing business, that no longer match the speed of news delivery that we have become use to and old media news businesses are destine to fail. If they keep believing that it is all about the packaging the way that they have been doing since the first newspaper was published they will disappear.

The thing is that advertising could work but the way it currently behaves whenever we are engaged by it – whether on a blog, the New York Times or an overlay on a video – only serves to push us further away from it. It isn’t that we are struggling with ways to keep the news flowing because that will never stop, the problem is that old media hasn’t figured out yet a new and better way to package something that is inherently free.

Free news isn’t going to kill old media but it’s reliance on the old methods of supporting outdated and expensive methods of packaging the news is what will kill them. After all you can’t kill off something that is free.