March 15, 2005

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SCMP and other online newspapers

A few weeks back there was a fuss in Singapore as the Straits Times Interactive (online) announced charges for access to its website. Under pressure the ST changed its pricing but retained the intention to charge. Under questioning one of those responsible for the move said it was unfair for print subscribers to subsidise online users. It's a bogus point I'll return to soon.

All this fuss plus a post by Spike got me thinking about the rather lame SCMP online site. The paper makes a point of pushing its online portal, with print ads advertising for intra-day updates. The articles on the website are only accessible to subscribers, despite a proliferation of annoying flash advertisements all over the screen. But print subscribers cannot access the site - you have to pay an extra fee for the access. In other words you pay twice for access to the same content. The articles are unlinkable, meaning the SCMP misses out on potential traffic driven to their site by bloggers and others. There are few updates each day - today I can count exactly two new articles on the main page. Worse the page is not updated at all on sunday and only infrequently on Saturday. Even if you subscribe to the site, not all of the newspaper articles are put online. As Spike points out often the online articles have the wrong pictures attached. The "Totally HK" lifestyle guide is a pale imitation of several better (free) newspapers and sites. The "On the Spot" online forum could be a great forum for interacting with reporters and columnists, except it seems to only ever feature food/wine critic Kevin Sinclair and film editor Mathew Scott. I don't know the SCMP online traffic numbers, but I am sure they are a small fraction of what they could be.

Newspapers face a problem in dealing with the internet. They need to find a business model that is appropriate for the internet but that does not completely cannibalise their traditional offerings. Approaches differ. The NYT is considering charging for access to its content. As Joi Ito pointed out the NYT these days offers little that cannot be found for free elsewhere. That said the NYT at least recognised the value of links with its link generator, which avoids the problem of stale links. The Economist manages to strike a good balance: some content for free with the rest reserved for print and online subscribers. There is no additional charge for print subscribers to get access to the Economist online. At the same time the Economist online offers new and different content to the print magazine. On top of all this now traditional media are dealing with the emergence of "citizens' media" as well. Are they potential rivals or allies? Do they boost audiences or steal them?

What it boils down to is a simple proposition: value. Is the content provided worth it, in terms of not just advertising but also traffic and viewing time? What is a newspaper's online site for? Is it an extension of the traditional paper or a glorified piece of advertising? Do print subscribers actually subsidise online content? I doubt that. The traditional newspaper model is to gain revenue through advertising with a small cover charge to pay for distribution. Online there are neglible distribution costs. These lower barriers to entry are partly why papers are feeling threatened by the internet. But they hold advantages in terms of brand and revenue that should give them a competitive advantage online. It is to their detriment (and others' benefit) if they squander these opportunities.

There are many better qualified than I to address these issues. What I do know is the SCMP is an example of an online media offering that does not get it. They seem to have no discernable online strategy other than putting up a site for the sake of it. With minor changes the site could be a significant source of both new readers and greater revenue. For a small fee I'd be happy to oblige. It is a small price to pay compared to the alternatives.

Update: China Tech News talks about nudging SCMP in the right direction and Fons takes the analysis of the media revolution further. Pressthink often looks at these issues in great depth.

posted by Simon on 03.15.05 at 02:36 PM in the


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