Larry Weber just gave up. The author and founder of public relations giant Weber Shandwick tried to search the website of what once called itself “the world’s greatest newspaper” but abandoned the effort when it became too hard.
“I couldn’t find things on the Chicago Tribune’s website, which has a terrible search engine … so I just gave up,” Weber told the Hong Kong Economic Journal’s EJ Insight. “It’s unacceptable if the newspaper wants to survive in the future.”
Things were different just a click away at seekingalpha.com, a California-based financial analysis website with slick navigation technology.
“People can input their favorite types of stories, writers, company names and interests and will then receive emails whenever there is story. It makes me want to read through Seeking Alpha even more,” he said. “Reader experience is the most important thing for digital media companies.”
For Weber, the contrast reflects the challenge that traditional media must rise to if they are to survive and thrive in the digital era. And that includes mainland media under attack from new forms of technology. Last year, many state-owned commercial newspapers saw their circulations plummet by as much as 30 percent due to the sudden rise of smartphones. The shift caught the newspapers napping about how to generate revenue through mobile platforms.
Weber says newspapers have to change the way they do business so they can lure subscribers and advertisers away from other platforms. To do that, he says, they should improve their navigation system, include more visual elements, enable interaction been readers and writers and charge a reasonable subscription fee.
It also means slimming down and simplifying websites. “Large websites should go the way of the Soviet Union,” he said. “I wouldn’t even call them websites but digital destinations with very specific topics that are all networked together. People can go very deeply while navigating and searching the topics as one.”
The best lesson in how to achieve this is The New York Times, Weber said. From near-bankruptcy three years ago, the news source has developed into a complex online experience that readers are willing to pay for.
“Its journalism was very good but the declining circulation and lack of people’s interest in buying the traditional newspaper was just too much to take,” he said.
“What The New York Times has done in the past years is to go deeper on stories than just the actual coverage on an article.
“They used the web to do that. When you read the article online, you can actually see the journalists talk with certain sources. You can see the journalists take you to a specific place. You can have a link to get more information about a topic.
“It’s not only a newspaper article but an in-depth visual and web-based experience.”
The London-based Financial Times is another example of a traditional media winner in the online age. It has managed to transform its business to the point where online subscriptions outnumbered newspaper circulation in 2012. It aims to phase out its various paper editions and publish a global print version this year, signalling an exit for traditional newspapers.
The success of the Financial Times and The New York Times defies the overall industry trend. The struggle to maintain newspaper circulation in the United States, for example, has only grown since the 2008 global financial crisis, sending dozens of media companies to the wall.
It’s also the case in China where newspapers are battling declining advertising revenue and readership. In 2012, revenue from newspaper ads fell 7.5 percent from the previous year, compared with an increase of 4.5 percent on average across all traditional media.
In the first half of last year, mainland newspapers shed 8.87 percent of their readers on average from a year earlier. The drop-off was particularly sharp among the financial and IT press, which lost 31 percent of readers, and general news newspapers, which had a 20 percent fall in circulation, according to Century Chinese International Media Consultation Inc. Communist Party mouthpieces remained unaffected but one bright spot was lifestyle newspapers, which grew 11 percent in circulation.
“Chinese media should change their business model and become more attractive to the younger generation who do not really want to buy a newspaper,” Weber said.
“The world of competition is all about visual presentation and communication … Even if you are a very serious journal, you cannot be text-based forever.”
Pure text-based publishing will only survive for a few more years with the support of the traditional readers, he said. The future is in including video elements to explain hard news in a better way. “The journalist covers the story specifically while letting some economists and academics to explain more deeply what’s going on,” Weber said. “It will become a more interesting journalistic experience than just reading an article.”
Pay and share
Chinese newspapers also have to refine their online business models and resist the common urge to overprice their products and make sure people pay for everything.
“Some media set high subscription fees as they try to protect everything. That’s not good. US$200 per year will be a common price tag,” Weber said. “The fee could go lower if they can figure out an online advertising model.”
Online subscription has not gained the popularity in Hong Kong that it has in the US but at least the concept has a greater hold in the special administrative region than it does on the mainland. Online subscription fees for Hong Kong newspapers are about HK$500 (US$64.3) per year.
“What media has to do is to be honest to their brands and build the brand that people are attracted to and want to pay for. That’s hard to do in the digital age. But The New York Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times seem to be working,” Weber said. “You might have a tough six months [to boost online subscription] but it’s worth the investment.”
Weber suggests that Chinese media firms build their brands by letting journalists set up their own blogs and create their own names. If the journalist becomes famous, people would want to read their stories in the established media as well, he said.
Larry Weber, the author of four books including Everywhere: Comprehensive Digital Business Strategy for the Social Media Era in 2011, is chairman of W2 Group, which controls Digital Influence Group, a digital marketing agency, and Racepoint Global, a public relations agency. He founded Weber Shandwick, the world’s largest public relations firm.
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