An iTunes model for news? More difficult than you think.

The following is a comment I posted on Standupkid’s Localtvnews blog, a response to the David Carr NYT column ‘Let’s invent an iTunes for News’. The comment ended up being so lengthy I thought I’d better reproduce it here:

The whole iTunes idea is flawed on so many levels: mainly as people are willing to pay for music because they play it over and over again. News is disposable. Also, an individual piece of music tends to be unique – but when an earthquake happens, it’s not like the only way you can find out what happens is by paying a dollar to download the article about it. Put another way, how much effort does it take to compose, rehearse and record a track? Now how much time does it take a journalist to write a standard article? Very little journalism has value approaching that of music and yes, perhaps we’d pay for it, but how would we find it? And how could we produce it often enough to be viable? (Note that most musicians do not make a living from their music – would an iTunes for news mean the same for journalists?).

Oh, and I could add the fact that the business model for news is ad-based but music’s business model is not.

There are some lessons we can learn though: Apple established an infrastructure for music distribution online and offline (and annoyingly until now tied in downloaded songs to Apple players) – the news orgs haven’t done that for news. Will there be a time when we all carry Kindles? More likely we’ll just use our iPods and mobile phones, and the news org that creates an iTunes for those should prosper. 

Secondly, iTunes learned about you and made recommendations. It was web-native, not shovelware – I’ve yet to see a news website with anything like the social angle that iTunes has. Facebook is closer.

Thirdly, it made content available that you couldn’t get elsewhere, bringing producers under one roof, saving the user time and creating value. Music is not search-friendly and ‘discoverability’ is social; news (text) is very search-friendly and easier to replicate so it is harder to add value there – although broadcast news orgs may have an advantage in this respect, particularly as their parent companies are already starting to do this with the likes of Hulu and Kangaroo

The key point, is that if you are to charge people for news you need to add some value, not just shovel your content online. That’s very very difficult when accessing information is so very very easy.

12 thoughts on “An iTunes model for news? More difficult than you think.

  1. Dubber

    You’re right about adding value. That’s step one.

    But iTunes does more than simply play records that people bought and want to listen to over and over again. iTunesU and podcasts are good models for using what is essentially an RSS-capable, media-rich database user interface – and the ‘player’ is also the discovery engine, the store and the portable device manager.

    I don’t actually see what the downside for news would be if iTunes was pushed as a platform – or a model of a platform. But it would only work if value was added. If I was signed up to a subscription news model – it would need to be personal, portable and relevant. I’d want news to be considered in terms of what I MUST know, what I SHOULD know and what I would probably WANT to know.

    More to the point, I’d want context. The user-interface and the payment system is the icing on the cake. I’m no expert, but I’d have thought that if you want to win at doing news online, then you’d focus more on WHY things happened as much as WHAT happened. What’s at stake? Who are these people? Why do they think what they think? What are the different opinions about the issue, and what do the people who think those things think about other things that I already have opinions about? And so on.

    That’s the sort of thing that the online environment, I’d have thought, would be very good at. We can already debate things that we know just a little about and have formed very strong opinions over. That bit is solved. Depth of resource, and – dare I say it – authority – are next.

    Don’t tell me WHAT to think, of course – but do explain what is thought and by whom.

    Seems to me a media-rich, RSS-capable, database UI might be exactly the sort of tool through which to navigate such a resource.

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  3. Anton

    You may want to check out, a website where you can find ‘podcasts’ for free (PDF) newspapers that can be found on the Internet. With you can subscribe to newspaper podcasts and have these automatically delivered to your computer (or e-reader).

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  6. Mark Joyella


    I’m sorry I didn’t check out the full length post until now. You make an excellent argument against an iTunes model for news, especially the news content that, as you point out, is free, and often, lousy. Why pay for that?

    Solving this financial model question is critical, though, as today’s WSJ article so clearly points out with regard to local television: the old model is dying–and quickly. Something new’s gotta come along, and if it keeps television stations doing news as we’ve known it, great. If it’s something else, I’d like to know what it is… at least a short while before everyone else does, thanks.

    Great writing. I hope you’ll keep posting on my blog!


  7. paulbradshaw

    I think the key to financially supporting news online is to forget about advertising against content. Unless you have users in the billions like Google, Facebook etc. then the numbers won’t add up (some international brands like NYT, Guardian, etc. may manage it, but they will be a minority)

    Then look at the models that are working online: freemium; selling services and tools rather than content. How can you make your information a service or the basis for a tool?

    I’m exploring some of these models at the moment with a news project that I hope to launch soon. If it fails, fine, but tinkering with the old models is not going to do it. We have to reinvent this thing.

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  12. Exie Sporn

    its great to see somone discussing this concern occasionally it is so challenging to discover a honest opinion and i appreciate your honesty on this issue i just wish you had a newsletter i could subscribe to as i would be extremely interested in readind your posts and debating on futher issues you may desire to discuss, stay blessed.


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