Q. How can publishers compete with zero-cost base community developed and run sites?
They can’t – and they shouldn’t. When it comes to the web, the value lies in the network, not in the content. Look at the biggest web success story: Google. Google’s value – contrary to the opinion of AP or Rupert Murdoch or the PCC – is not in its content. It is in its connections; its links; its network. You don’t go to Google to read; you go there to find. The same is true of so many things on the internet. One of the problems for publishers is that people use the web as a communications channel first, as a tool second, and as a destination after that. The successful operations understand the other two uses and work on those by forging partnerships, and linking, linking, linking.
So publishers should be working with those community sites for long-term mutual benefit – and I emphasise ‘mutual': publication in your print edition ‘Photos of the Week’ does not really constitute a long-term strategy here.
Q. Are publishers wise to be investing in microlocal at this time?
Yes. The regional approaches of print products were based on print distribution logistics. Take those away and you have no reason to replicate that ‘patch’ online. Readers are going to go to a website based on their postcode rather than plough through pages of content on the chance they’ll find something relevant.
Q. What kind of local sites are likely to succeed and who do you think will ultimately emerge as owners of this space?
The sites that have been most successful so far are those that focus on relationships as much as content, and who have an open and transparent approach to production. Sites that challenge power while inviting collaboration.
Q. How do you think the landscape is likely to develop going forward?
I’ve said this before at the C&binet event, so I’ll quote from that: I see 2 main paths of development, and both have one thing in common: the future is networked.
On the one side I see the national-grassroots-data path – I’ll call it the Networked Model for simplicity’s sake. As increasing numbers of local newspapers close or stunt their operations, hyperlocal blogs will spring up to address the gap. At the same time national news organisations enter the local market and partner with these and data-based operations. The most likely figures in this scenario are The Guardian, hyperlocal blogs and the likes of MySociety and OpenlyLocal. It’s a patchwork solution that is likely to leave gaps in coverage.
On the other side is the Local News Consortia proposed by Ofcom. Established operators like PA, ITN and regional newspaper publishers will partner up to gain access to a pot of public money and efficiencies that they cannot achieve without ending up in front of the Competition Commission. This will require some public service commitments such as covering councils and courts, and universal coverage – but fundamentally this will be Business As Usual.
Q. What do you see as the main threats to publisher success?
The biggest threat is in continuing to focus on maximising the efficiencies of existing assets rather than using the efficiencies that the internet offers. The internet makes it incredibly efficient to collaborate, to distribute, and to link, but publishers’ moves online so far have neglected all three of those opportunities, focusing instead on content, content, content.
Content, for most people, is a means to an end: typically conversation or action. Established publishers face enormous threats from other online operations make that connection easy through collaboration, distribution and linking.
Q. What tactics do you think publishers should be adopting to leverage their strengths?
Focus on adapting ad sales departments for the internet age and the measurability and interactivity that that offers. Don’t just sell internet ads – sell the internet to advertisers; because if you don’t, a competitor will.
Be as transparent as possible about everything that they do, linking to sources of information and publishing them in their unedited form if they’re not already online. This creates material for others to work with, leading to more stories, and more people clicking back to the material, not to mention the goodwill that can help drive more leads and more sales.