Google Can Save Digital Newspapers and Magazines [Opinion]

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When Steve Jobs unveiled the orig­i­nal iPad it was hailed as a con­tent con­sump­tion device. Most of the people that I know that own a tablet use it almost exclusively to consume content, not to create it. Despite the heavy empha­sis on con­sump­tion, pub­lish­ers have strug­gled to get smart­phone and tablet own­ers to pay for con­tent on their devices.

This struggle between publishers and readers is as old as the Internet. The Inter­net set a new stan­dard for con­tent with most web­sites pub­lish­ing articles for free with ads lin­ing the sides of the web­site. Even­tu­al­ly publishers used pay­walls to force read­ers to pay for a sub­scrip­tion or a one time fee to read an arti­cle in its entire­ty. Read­ers who had become accus­tomed to free con­tent moved on to other sources or looked for ways to get the article for free. The iPad was sup­posed to be the medi­um with which pub­lish­ers would be able to charge for con­tent again, but as Jason Pon­tin of Technology Review explains, the cost of app devel­op­ment and lim­it­ed read­er response made the iPad an ille­git­i­mate mes­si­ah of pub­lish­ing.

Pon­tin con­cludes that since the iPad and News­stand failed to attract sub­scribers, the web must be the future of pub­lish­ing, not apps. I’m con­vinced that Pon­tin is wrong. Pub­lish­ers made two vital errors with dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing: first, apps should not be treat­ed as a mag­a­zine replace­ment and second, peo­ple shouldn’t be forced to pay for con­tent that they don’t want. If pub­lish­ers and Google can work togeth­er to cor­rect these errors, togeth­er they can save dig­i­tal mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers. 

From songs to films to writ­ing, peo­ple have found a way to get dig­i­tal con­tent for free. All it takes is one pirate and a dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work to dis­trib­ute media freely. Despite so many options to steal mate­r­i­al, con­tent dis­tri­b­u­tion sources like iTunes, rdio, Net­flix, and Google Play have mil­lions of users who pay for con­tent. The prob­lem isn’t that peo­ple don’t want to pay for con­tent, but that peo­ple want to pay for good con­tent in an attrac­tive medi­um.

Many pub­lish­ers made the fool­ish mis­take of think­ing that peo­ple want­ed dig­i­tal con­tent to be iden­ti­cal to a mag­a­zine. Sure, most tablets are rough­ly the size of a mag­a­zine, but that doesn’t mean that read­ers want to look at dig­i­tal pages that were formatted for a magazine. Read­ers want the qual­i­ty of mag­a­zine con­tent in a new medi­um.

Pon­tin men­tions that var­i­ous screen sizes, res­o­lu­tions, and ori­en­ta­tions made design­ing con­tent for tablets and phones dif­fi­cult. These issues should have been obvi­ous from the start because tablets and smart­phones aren’t mag­a­zines. If pub­lish­ers want to con­trol how the con­tent looks then they should design the apps for cer­tain form fac­tors and restrict ori­en­ta­tions. If they don’t want to be that restrictive, they should design the con­tent to be mal­leable to var­i­ous form fac­tors, ori­en­ta­tions, and res­o­lu­tions (like the web).

Of course the larg­er issue fac­ing pub­lish­ers isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly the medi­um, but how to get peo­ple to pay for con­tent. Devel­op­ing a way for read­ers to see con­tent in a beau­ti­ful envi­ron­ment costs a lot of time and money, so pub­lish­ers want to ensure that they’ll get a decent return on their invest­ment. On the web this was solved with ads, but ads have a nasty ten­den­cy of becom­ing intru­sive. Popup block­ers have pushed adver­tis­ers to cre­ate ads that roll out on top of a website with hid­den close but­tons. Often these are impos­si­ble to close on a mobile device, mak­ing the con­tent unread­able. Savvy read­ers might turn to an RSS read­er or page saver like Instapa­per, but most will prob­a­bly just move on out of frus­tra­tion.

Apple tried to pro­vide a uni­fied solu­tion for digital magazines and newspapers with News­stand, but the lack of inno­va­tion in News­stand led to its poor adop­tion. Every iOS user has prob­a­bly opened News­stand upon dis­cov­er­ing that it can­not be hidden away into a fold­er. Per­haps Apple thought that being restric­tive like that would encour­age users to try out the app; I have a feel­ing it just turned users off. To make mat­ters worse, once News­stand is opened every paper and mag­a­zine is list­ed as free, but dig­ging fur­ther reveals the same tired month­ly sub­scrip­tion options that no one wants.

This is where Google’s new subscription option in the Play Store could save magazines and newspapers. The key to under­stand­ing how to get peo­ple to pay for con­tent is to under­stand that people like choice. Though pub­lish­ers want read­ers to pur­chase a sub­scrip­tion to a pack­age of con­tent (like music labels want lis­ten­ers to buy whole albums), users don’t want to pay for con­tent they don’t want. The web has con­di­tioned users to expect an option to pur­chase indi­vid­ual pieces of con­tent, not a whole pack­age. Peo­ple don’t visit web­sites to read every arti­cle, they visit them to read the arti­cles that inter­est them. Like it or not, the web has spoiled users into believ­ing that they deserve choice.

Google is the company that built out the web for most people. Without Google Search, the Internet wouldn’t be what it is today. Google Search allowed people to find what they wanted. Because Google has consistently been about offering its users choice, I think Google is best poised to talk publishers into rethinking subscriptions.

If pub­lish­ers were to accept the idea that people should only pay for what they want, the prob­lem then becomes how to dis­trib­ute and price indi­vid­ual arti­cles. Apps like Read­abil­i­ty have tried to help pub­lish­ers by collecting sub­scrip­tion money from read­ers on behalf of the pub­lish­ers. This idea isn’t a bad one, ­but I think users would be more comfortable paying for content through Google instead of through a third party app. Google should build in support for magazine and newspaper subscriptions in Google Current, but allow users to pay for individual articles as well as subscribe to whole magazines or newspapers. Google could still help pub­lish­ers by offer­ing free sub­scrip­tions that are sub­si­dized by adver­tise­ments and paid sub­scrip­tions for a num­ber of arti­cles instead of whole news­pa­pers or mag­a­zines so that read­ers have one place to go for read­ing instead of multiple websites or apps. Either way, pub­li­ca­tions would be get­ting paid money that they’re miss­ing out on now.

The web as we know it isn’t the future of pub­lish­ing, but nei­ther are indi­vid­ual apps for each pub­li­ca­tion. Peo­ple are look­ing for con­tent in apps because unlike the web, apps are designed from the ground up to work on mobile devices. The soon­er pub­lish­ers real­ize that the future is mobile and that peo­ple want per­son­al­ized con­tent, not gen­er­al­ized con­tent, they soon­er they’ll be able to put out a prod­uct that peo­ple want to pay for.

If any company would rally behind the idea that users should only pay for what they want, I think it would be Google. Google partners with OEMs every year to ensure that there are a plethora of Android handsets to meet a wide variety of tastes and needs. Google built a search engine with the idea that free access to the information you want is a good thing. Google Plus was designed from the ground up to put you in control of what you share and who you share it with. In short, Google is a company that is all about giving its users what they want. It’s that sort of attitude that can save magazines and newspapers.


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