Monday, May 26, 2008

Begging people to subscribe is not the answer

Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz laid out the unpleasant truths in a graduation speech at the Columbia J-School last week:

"I know journalists are often math averse, but I will throw out some statistics: minus 3.9; minus 5.1; minus 3.6; minus 4.4."

He continued:

"What are these numbers, you may ask? Perhaps you instinctively know. These numbers represent the percentage declines in circulation over the last six months for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune."

His solution?

"Here is your first assignment. No matter where you next land, no matter what you do, please, please subscribe immediately to a newspaper!"


It's thinking like this that continually convinces me that folks from the mainstream media are
not going to be the ones to figure out the future of news. As any businessperson knows, you cannot ensure the viability of your product by begging people who are otherwise uninterested to buy it. Even worse by telling them they should buy it, that it's the morally responsible thing to do. You have to make your customers want your product.

Did Apple create a blockbuster music business by telling people, "You really should buy and listen to your music our way?" No, of course not. First, they took a look at prevailing conditions within the music industry that either weren't working for customers or could be done a lot better. Like: In order to get that one song you really liked, you had to buy a CD of 11 other songs that very well could be crap. To take your music on vacation, you had to cart around a large CD player and a bunch of CDs. To buy music, you had to physically go to a store--or buy a CD online and wait a few days for it to arrive by mail.

So why did the iPod and iTunes become instant successes? Become something customers wanted and flocked to in droves? Because it made the whole experience of buying and listening to music better. Just want that one song? Buy only it. Don't have room for all that crap? Look how small this device is. Want it now? You got it.

If mainstream newsfolks want to find the future of their business, they're going to have to stop whining about those horrible people who won't buy what they're selling and start thinking about how they can create something people actually will want.

Photo courtesy of dan taylor

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