According to an article in today’s MediaGuardian by Kim Fletcher, as of tomorrow (Tue 12 June), the Guardian will publish stories first to the web, “ending the primacy of the printed newspaper”.  

 The newspaper industry seems to be agonising over such decisions and this is no doubt a ‘ground-breaking’ innovation for them. But isn’t this as obvious as was the need for a format of newspaper you could actually read on the train (Berliner format blah blah)…?

Old habits die hard. I still occasionally read the Guardian on a Monday – it’s a legacy of my days working in TV.

It amuses me now to read their internet coverage (“it might just work this infoweb thingy…”), though, to be fair, it is improving in quality (perhaps the advertisers are back?) though still quite patronising for many I fear.

However, I struggle to sympathise with the newspaper industry and its agonising over the internet. You get the impression that the internet is seen as a great threat, rather than an exciting opportunity. A bit like those high street retailers who want the government ‘to do something’ about the fact that their customers are choosing to shop online. Pesky customers – how dare they exercise choice eh?

Surely newspapers realise that for quite a while now they have not been the place people turn for hard, breaking news (like disasters)? Surely its obvious people go to the web for that? Or TV, or maybe radio. But definitely not print.

So why would a newspaper hold back news for print? Certainly not for the users (aka readers) benefit. No, in order to shore up print advertising.

And yet for online news operations to succeed speed of publication is essential. Hours, even minutes matter. Why? Because the real traffic comes from the news aggregators like Google News, NewsNow, Yahoo! News etc. If you’re first there on a particular story then you get the traffic (= advertising inventory) but you also then get the links, the Diggs, the reddits, the blogs and so on, all of which drive further direct traffic but which also drive up your search rankings, which drives traffic, which drives links… you get the picture.

It’s a funny thing. When you talk to newspapers, broadcasters, people in radio, and they talk about ‘customers’ they are usually referring to advertisers. I’m not really convinced that newspapers care deeply about their readers past a crude demographic and circulation figure. Certainly not in the same way that people who run successful web sites obsess about their users – they have to or those users would quickly go elsewhere. Online the obsession is around user experience, useful tools and services. Get those right and advertising will follow – indeed you can just plug it in if you want with Google AdSense. In print I’ve sat in supposedly editorial meetings with national newspapers where they’re discussing if they can sell the content to advertisers (never mind the readers…).

Furthermore, there is a sense, when newspapers quote circulation figures, that every one of those readers reads the whole newspaper. Which clearly isn’t the case. A newspaper is an aggregation of content and readers under a banner brand. A bit like a broad web portal. Most readers are actually only interested in (and will actively read) a small proportion of content or journalists – may be just the crossword.

So, I could go on, but what can newspapers do about all this? How, as Kim asks in his article, can newspapers “make enough money to fund proper journalism out of that online readership.” (And indeed I’m all in favour of proper journalism and know what it costs. More on my suspicions around UGC (user-generated-content) another time. )

Personally, I don’t buy the amazing power of the whole “integrated online / print advertiser value proposition”. A recent McKinsey Quarterly article evaluated this in connection with classified advertising (see Classifed Ads: How newspapers can fight back”). Reading between the lines their advice appeared to be – give up, go and buy all the decent online players already out there.

Perhaps instead newspapers should not worry about their print circulations falling. They should increase the price of their papers and charge advertisers more for advertising to a smaller readership. Why? Because those people still buying the print version are much more engaged and valuable. Because they’ll be buying the paper not to skim read news any more but to read the analysis and comment of journalist they trust.

The print version should also be used to market the web site. Not the other way round. And the web site should be better at selling content – the national newspapers efforts in paid content so far have been very poor. They’re sitting on all sorts of value with their archives.

And the web site should actually be a collection of niche sites under a brand umbrella. Think nanopublishing, think Long Tail, think blogs – there is no reason why big newspapers can’t ape what is happening elsewhere anyway. The trick is to have a very low cost base per site. You’ll have low revenues per site too. But each is very profitable and the collection of all the sites would be very profitable too.

It’s time for newspapers to stop getting so hung up on the print edition and focusing on advertisers. Time to use the print version for marketing the web properties. Time to use the web to de-atomise themselves across the vast web readership and tap into the zillions of perfectly valuable niche audiences out there.

Ashley Friedlein, CEO,