Why offering free wifi could be one way for publishers to save journalism

The recent announcement that Swindon will be the first UK town to offer free wifi to all its citizens has piqued my curiosity on a number of levels. MA Online Journalism student Andrew Brightwell first got me thinking when he pointed out that the ability for the local council (which owns a 35% stake) to sell advertising represented a new threat to the local paper.

But think beyond the immediate threat and you have an enormous opportunity here. Because offering universal wifi could present a real opportunity for publishers to recapture some of the qualities that made their print products so successful.

Owning the platform

One of the biggest problems for publishers wanting to make money online is that they do not own the platform. People and advertisers pay for a newspaper as much as news; online the platform and the content are decoupled, and users have already shelled out enough thank you very much for internet access.

Offering free wifi, then, would allow publishers to re-establish a stronger negotiating position when it comes to selling local advertising (for example, on a landing page, or along a promotional strip, or simply beside their own content which is given priority placing on the platform). But it’s not just about dominating the market…

The best of both worlds

The mobile qualities of wifi make it particularly easy to sell geo-targeted advertising. If you have a built-in search engine you could also do a Google and serve up relevant ads based on a combination of their search and location.

Of course, you could also explore the freemium options that form the basis of Swindon’s business model: pay for higher speeds or longer time, or applications (or an ad-free version).

They key as with so many online business models may be to rely on a range of revenue streams.

Encouraging conversation, working in networks

This sort of venture could have some interesting implications compared to print publishing. If you are providing a package like this, do you become more interested in stimulating conversation rather than simply publishing content?

And might you be interested in selling your advertising to other local platforms, in the same way Google AdSense does?

If you don’t do it, someone else will

Expect more councils to be looking in this direction (35 are already), as well as operators like The Cloud. If the internet has taught publishers one thing it should be this: your profitability relied on your ability to sell a platform based on reliable quality content. You didn’t do that online. Try again.

11 thoughts on “Why offering free wifi could be one way for publishers to save journalism

  1. Pingback: Kataweb.it - Blog - SNODI di Federico Badaloni » Blog Archive » e se gli editori si salvassero grazie al libero wi-fi?

  2. Andrew Brightwell

    Brilliant. I’m obviously looking for a commission (with you) on the first news org to go into this venture. Clearly, there may be a way of tying in a news operator’s customers with a network – or some kind of network share. Could the Guardian, for example, create a network like fon? If, say, the Guardian offers a router for a small amount to its customers and that router allows you to share your wifi with other guardian customers who are passing through your area then you might be able to tie large numbers into a kind of wifi club. this wouldn’t involve the kind of high prices required to create the kind of coverage that Swindon Council is. Fon, in my opinion, is really badly advertised (I didn’t know about it until a few weeks ago) and yet it’s a great option for loads of people. But an established broadsheet, with a loyal customer base, would be able to market a similar product at very low cost, very effectively. The result would be a network under their control and the opportunity to market even more intelligently to the customer base.

  3. Nathan Fuchs

    Good article! I can see the project-funding possiblities of geo-advertising, and I like the idea of journalists trying to foster ground for discussion instead of merely printing articles to meet a deadline, fill paper, etc.

    One question though, how would the wifi provider specifically steer its users toward saving journalism? Am I missing something, because I could see many people simply using the free service without much concern for its intended purpose.

    1. Paul Bradshaw

      The wifi provider makes money from advertising on the landing page that people get when they log on to the wifi network; and potentially from an advertising strip overlaid on all or some of the content accessed through it. So it’s the same old model supporting journalism – essentially it’s re-coupling the delivery platform and the content which the internet de-coupled.

  4. Pingback: » Why offering free wifi could be one way for publishers to save … RWPS

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