A Newsstand for the Tablet that might work

“Newsstand” by triin on Flickr.

Mario Garcia probably believes the lifespan (halflife?) of print newspapers will stretch out ever so slightly longer than I believe, but I’m constantly inspired by his original thought about the problems associated with sustaining any version of the existing structure of journalism, assuming for the moment that it’s a good idea.

And of course, he’s thinking about the Tablet. (I’m going to try to avoid focusing on any single product here, instead using the word “Tablet” as code for: multitouch slab of glass with applications and payment systems built in. Maybe there will be more than one entry in that genre.)

Here’s Mario on something he calls a street sales app:

“Based on this, I can imagine that the iPad could lure the undecided (or reluctant) newspaper reader by offering a menu of headlines from various sections of a newspaper—-or from various newspapers, of course, and make it so interesting, that I may click to read that story, and pay for that one-time user experience.”

Let’s take that a big step beyond a list of headlines.

We’re talking about a physical, visual device that allows the user to move things around with their hands. OK, their fingers. Fine. But that allows us to present the user with — instead of a list of headlines — a stack of newspapers.

Yes, yes, I know, I know, you don’t want to read a giant PDF on a Tablet, you want the Web. You want the full browsing experience, or if you’re thinking is slightly more advanced, you want a completely new sort of interface that’s more Minority Report than Washington Post.

I’m right there with you.

But there’s something that a “Washington Post” app for the Tablet removes from the equation, even if you’re smart enough to build it with in-app purchases of feature/exclusive/enterprise stories, puzzles, and databases.

It removes choice from the equation.

A choice that we do have when we open up an RSS reader and look at a list of 100 headlines in the morning.

A choice that we do have when we walk by a newsstand on the way to the subway station.

Now, truth be told, when I walked by the newsstand on the way to the subway station, I was already in a silo, with steadfast plans to purchase a New York Times and do the crossword on the way to the office. But at least I’d see the other papers, the other headlines.

So maybe a real live Tablet Newsstand is a good idea. If I’m not going to purchase a subscription to the New York Times, maybe I’ll glance at the headlines and buy a copy on my way to the office now and then. Maybe I’ll want to do the crossword. Or maybe I’ll see a great headline in the San Francisco Chronicle and buy that instead.

After all, the interfaces for a bookstore and library that Steve Jobs showed off the other day didn’t offer one chapter at a time, or one story at a time, they offered a book, sitting on a shelf.

Engadget’s photo of Steve’s slide.

(Yes, I’ve heard of Delicious Library.)

Of course, things brings up all sorts of interesting questions about which newspaper and magazine publishers would be willing to go in together on this sort of thing. They’d have to build the app themselves, decide how to split up the revenue, who to feature on which pages — this is all the sort of thing they might have preferred Apple take care of, eh?

So I’m interested. I’m interested in a newsstand that provides some opportunity for serendipity and revenue, not based on subscription models or paywalls, but based on the idea that I might pay something like 99 cents for a Tablet version of the New York Times when I’m in the mood to interact with it and, most likely, fiddle with the crossword on the way to work.

Carnival of Journalism: Are we asking the right questions about online revenue models?

As is my habit, I’m running behind on my Carnival of Journalism post this month, set to the timely and tuneful whistles and bangs of talk about whether a newspaper’s online revenue could support the newsroom, how long the newspaper of record will keep the press running, and what a major metro in a failed JOA can do to survive online.

So, the question, posed by Paul Bradshaw (and be sure to check out the Seesmic thread as well) is as follows:

“How do you financially support journalism online?”

Of course, as is my habit, I’m going to have to sharpen that question up a bit, lest I fall prey to the temptation to speculate wildly about the future of major metro newspapers and their finances, as I’m sure I’ve done in the past.

So let’s get specific.

Here’s what I’m not interested in talking about:

Whether the current online revenue of a giant newspaper could support its newsroom staff.  I think that’s an apples/oranges problem.  Shutting down the press is not a hydraulic maneuver — it does not occur in a vacuum — it affects brand and upsell revenue and staffing and all sorts of parts move and grind against each other when you flip that switch on a large scale.  So, looking at two columns in a spreadsheet and saying “oh, they match” is a bit simplistic for my taste.

Great, so, moving on.

Well, wait, not yet.  One more thing to get out of the way:

I’m not (that) interested (today) in trying to figure out what revenue, then, will support major metro newspapers online.  When a major city loses its last print edition, it will be because it has already been replaced, in terms of reporting, advertising, commentary, and yes, journalism, by (mostly) smaller organizations.

And by definition, I expect a newspaper.com in a no-print city to look and feel infinitely different than it does now, to be a distributed news service, the sum of dozens of tiny parts, a portal to a wide variety of platforms where bits of news pushed out and pulled in.

(Right, so again, these are all the things I’m not going to talk about today. Right. Sure.)

My question, then, is how to support a small, agile, online-only news organization.

And that’s a much easier question to answer, isn’t it?

Let’s start with three obvious ways:

  1. Local Advertising. What?  You thought online advertising couldn’t support online journalism?  Well, it all depends on scale.  If you’re building a community news site for a 10-square-mile area, you’re likely to find a set of local businesses that have never had an advertisement online before, and certainly not running on a news source that exclusively covers the area in which their most likely customers live.  A combination of banner ads sold at reasonable rates, business listings, and sponsorships should bring in a portion of your revenue.
  2. Freemium Classifieds. What?  You thought craigslist killed every possible opportunity for local classified ad sales?  No.  Not in hundreds (thousands?) of markets in between major cities, and maybe not at the neighborhood-level.  Either way, you’re going to make money off classifieds without turning away one-time customers who aren’t interesting in paying to sell that old tricycle.  Here’s how:  Offer new customers five free ads.  After that, they pay.  Businesses always pay.  Real estate brokers and car dealerships pay a premium, especially to add video to their ads.  The key to this?  A simple self-service system.  Keep the interface basic and friendly, and tailor it to your community.
  3. Community-Funded Reporting. What? You’re worried that you won’t be able to pay for long-form investigative reporting on a small community site budget? The simple answer is that the community will pay for the stories that would otherwise be missed by a larger, slower, all-encompassing news organization with a broad coverage area. See the Spot.Us project for live examples of enterprise reporting that were funded, a few dollars at a time, by community members and other interested parties (like me) who don’t live in the area anymore, but still take an interest in local issues.

After that, there are less obvious ways to keep a small organization financially afloat, but they’ll vary based on your skills, staffing, and neighborhood.

Does that local business need a Web site to go with their banner ad?  I hear there are these new things called “blogs” that might be easy for them to maintain once you set them up with one, handling the hosting, domain management, and upgrades for a fee.

Other moving parts to keep an eye on:

  • Ethan Zuckerman asks if ad-support journalism is viable, using the example of a 25k print circulation newspaper as a point of reference for his thoughtful analysis of the logic behind CPM ad pricing online.
  • VentureBeat on changes at Federated Media, a display advertising network for technology blogs and news sites.  The changes seem to focus on getting away from straight-ahead banner advertising.
  • No News Is Bad News, a group in Seattle trying to figure out what to do next with the Post-Intelligencer, which is likely to fold as a print newspaper around 50 days from now after not finding a buyer.