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Music-Industry Chatter Has Echoes For the News Business

SAN FRANCISCO -- I spent Monday talking shop with various tech types about the state of the music industry, but I gained a little insight about the newspaper business along the way.

The occasion was a daylong conference on the intersection of technology and music, the SanFran MusicTech Summit, which drew an assortment of musicians, Internet entrepreneurs, developers, lawyers and bloggers to a hotel here.

This isn't the sort of event that necessarily merits a trip out of town for me. But it coincided with some travel I'd been planning on my own and gave me the chance to lead a fascinating discussion about mobile-app development in which one developer likened Apple's App Store approval process to "a root canal." (So my ulterior motives are clear, public appearances like that get me some extra credit around here.)

I was glad I made the trip, as the summit turned out to be an excellent way to catch up on one of my favorite technology stories: the music industry's transition from plastic discs to digital bits. That business was among the first to have to figure out how to deal with a shift from physical to digital media. And while record labels did some unaccountably stupid things along the way, over the last few years they've gotten smarter about listening to their customers. At this point, other companies could learn a lot from the music business.

And as I took part in various discussions at this conference, I kept realizing that my own industry and my own employer were among them. Consider three points:

Connect with your customers. At one of the day's first discussions, representatives from big and small music businesses agreed on the same point: You need to engage in a conversation with your fans, not just push information out at them. And when they say particularly insightful or expressive things, recognize and credit that input publicly, because people like knowing that their input found an appreciative audience.

This isn't without risks: Jeremy Welt, of Warner Bros. records, said some artists don't react well to criticism: "I've seen bands melt down before going onstage just because they're looking at the message board." It's also possible to geek out a little too far when seeking feedback -- one panelist cited the example of a band that suggested onstage that its fans use a particular hashtag to talk about the show on Twitter.

This blog is all about your feedback; I try to read every comment and add my own replies as needed. I've also been trying to do the same for comments posted on my print stories, using the "recommend this" link when I think it's appropriate. But some weeks, that falls by the wayside. Also, because I can't link to individual comments, it's difficult to call them out later on. I know that people here want to make it easier for us to give you credit when you add to the conversation, so I hope we're working on these things.

Realize the importance of the mobile Web. At a discussion on Webcasting, Pandora chief executive Joe Kennedy cited some amazing numbers about the interactive-Web-radio service's mobile-phone applications: half a million listeners a day just on its iPhone and BlackBerry applications, tuning in for an average of an hour and 45 minutes a day. Similarly, Bill Goldsmith, who runs the excellent Radio Paradise, estimated that about 8 to 10 percent of his listenership comes through mobile devices and predicted that "we'll soon have more people listening to Internet radio on the go than who carry around an AM or FM radio."

The Post, of course, has a mobile-Web site, but it's... uh... ahem... not good. (I've seen much stronger language used about it in the newsroom.) We're now redesigning it and should have a new, far-better mobile site up this summer, hopefully by July but no later than September.

Try different ways to make money. An old programming motto simply states that "there's more than one way to do it," and people at the conference seemed to be heeding that advice in their businesses. Pandora's Kennedy noted that the company could only do so much with advertising -- an ad longer than 15 seconds is considered "punishing" -- but was also raking in good money from affiliate payments on the $1 million a month in music purchases made through links on its site and in its mobile apps. (Yesterday, Pandora announced a premium, $36/year option with higher sound quality and a better interface.) Goldsmith, meanwhile, doesn't run ads at all on Radio Paradise, instead relying on donations from listeners, supplemented by affiliate payments and sales of merchandise with the site's name and logo.

At the discussion I ran on mobile applications, I asked four developers how they decided whether to charge for an application or give it away in an ad-subsidized version. Darryl Ballantine, chief executive of LyricFind and the author of that root-canal comment, had the simplest answer: "You don't." The Toronto-based developer offers its iPhone application in both free-with-ads and paid-without-ads versions and lets listeners choose.

We and other newspapers, however, seem to be sticking with traditional ads. I don't think that charging people to read our stories will work, but there must be other, smarter ways for us to cash in on the extraordinary interest people can show in our work. What are the news equivalents, for example, of some of the crafty marketing strategies dreamed up by conference speaker Ian Rogers?

I'll turn the discussion over to you on this third issue: Assuming that you can still read anything on this site for free, what sort of convenience, service or extra feature would be worth paying something? It doesn't have to be something that we offer now... though, come to think of it, if you say "come to my house and fix my computer," I reserve the right to veto that request.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 20, 2009; 4:15 PM ET
Categories:  Music , The business we have chosen  
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Comments

For my money, i think the newspaper industries should divide their info in the following category:
* newsreleases, wire news should be free
* investigative reporting - i don't mind paying for
* exclusive stories - ( being in the Nations capital, access to politician, access to the white house, the goings on in the white house, every move Michelle Obama makes, what Michelle is wearing and how often, who did B Obama play on the basketball court) - i don't mind paying for
* accompanying videos, in depth interviews, getting a more detailed account of Rob Pegaro's trip to San Fran - i would not mind paying for
* if i am paying for the service, i should be able to customize my news to however i wanted it. you can call it "My Washington Post" page. right now unless i see it from the front page or signed up for the RSS i don't know that it is there. too many info on the web.
* and if i'm paying for the WP service, i don't want to be bothered with any banner ads, popup ads, side ads or any ads for that matter

Posted by: gmail | May 20, 2009 7:58 PM | Report abuse

I disagree with much of gmail's statement.

* sorry, I think the articles need to stay free. If the WSJ and Financial Times can put all of its articles on-line for free, so can this paper. The only exception is for super-specialized content, but the Washington Post is not that kind of paper
* I don't care about videos. I actually hate watching videos on the computer. I love talking to Rob in person, but if he is going to be speaking, I'd rather just read the transcript.
* to me there is no logical way to customize the page to my liking
* one possibility is to have a forum where subscribers can discuss and debate current topics, something a little more high-brow than the article comments
* agreed that paid subscribers shouldn't have to deal with ads

The hardest thing to me is tracking down obscure past articles. Did the WP publish a review of the Mission of Burma show at the Black Cat I went to in 2006? I'd consider paying for a service that would give me access to the complete archives and even talk to an official librarian if I can't find what I'm looking for.

Posted by: slar | May 20, 2009 10:11 PM | Report abuse

Um, no, slar, the WSJ does not put all of its articles on line for free. Rupert Murdoch can't afford to do that since Fox News is losing so much money. The articles which have a little gray key next to them, pops up a mouseover balloon saying "Subscriber content, Read Preview". This is borne out when you actually click on the article, which displays about 100 words, and then requests that you subscribe to keep reading. The top of such articles plainly state "Subscriber Content Preview. For full site access: subscribe now".

Although I do credit them for providing much more of their content online than they used to. Before News Corp, it was pretty much previews only.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | May 20, 2009 10:30 PM | Report abuse

People still like the feel, portability, and readability of paper, so why not make that an option?

For a year's subscription, you could give away a large format inkjet printer (would have to be very quiet) that could print out a customized newspaper. Extract a percentage of inkjet cartridge sales.

Like you say, people could choose to pay more to be ad-free, or pay less to have some targeted ads. If Google can do it, I'm sure 90%+ of your readers wouldn't mind either.

People could also customize it in several ways:

1) Allow them to choose from a menu, like iTunes, and you could even make suggestions based on previous selections

2) Allow readers to view online and tag parts of stories that they liked, get reporters and other content producers to cross-index follow-up stories. Also allow smart searching technology to find related stories

3) Allow readers to select a percentage of their custom paper to let an editor-driven software program to 'surprise and delight' with hidden gems, most popular choices, or what like-minded people are choosing.

4) Allow readers to view headlines/taglines of stories with a few sentences of text the night before, say by 10 pm, then have the custom paper printed out by 5 am the next morning (or whatever later time the reader chooses)

5) Allow readers to save a clean document that can be saved and printed out, but not shared electronically. Also allow readers to cross-reference parts of articles. This information could also be fed back to WaPo for some smarter search, described above.

6) Readers can choose from a small selection of fonts, as well as font sizes, can also select their preference from image-rich to image-free formats

7) Readers can do fast searches online of stuff they've read vs everything

None of this is original, just one person's taste about what is best about

a) the Web
b) Google
c) iTunes
d) Amazon.com
e) some other web-based experience that is pervasive but not branded well enough to come to mind.

Posted by: NoPoMD | May 21, 2009 12:22 AM | Report abuse

TWP.com is fine.

Please no more videos. Or put a video icon by all the video links, so I don't need to click them.

Keep it simple!!

Posted by: wp11234 | May 21, 2009 2:29 AM | Report abuse

Rob,

Looking forward to the revamped mobile site. How is the WP fairing with its digital subscriptions? The New York Times recently unveiled a 2.0 version of its digital reader. There were problems for Mac users for weeks. According to the Times Reader's online discussion board, many Mac users felt alienated by the fact there were problems, and the Times was not going to update the 1.0 version due to it being a Safari 4.0 issue.

Do you think outfits like the NY Times and, of course, the WP, will go the route of paid access for all, while giving away free what might be found on the front page? It seems once there is a Kindle or a Mac rumored tablet/netbook that can produce excellent quality color screens, then subscriptions to the digital versions could flourish.

Whatever happens, reporters like yourself have proven that excellence matters. Thanks for helping so many people out.

Posted by: upstateweather | May 21, 2009 3:08 AM | Report abuse

Darryl Ballantine's insightful comment in your article was quite timely. As often happens way too often on Post.com, I began to read Rob's Faster Forward blog this morning, but halfway through the first sentence a full-screen ad popped up and interrupted my reading. Congratulations on defeating the Firefox pop-up blocker.

I would be more than willing pay a fee to avoid interruptions such as that, and also those old home page scrolling ads at appeared at the top and moved what you were reading down off the screen.

Can you imagine anyone buying a print newspaper where, as you begin reading an article, the adjoining ad hops over and covers up what you are reading? Sheesh.

Posted by: richmurphy | May 21, 2009 6:02 AM | Report abuse

Making the front page of the site readable in FireFox would be a nice start...

That said, why not put comics in the Kindle Edition and allow an easy change from the paper version to the kindle version?

Posted by: wiredog | May 21, 2009 7:54 AM | Report abuse

To me the best comment was this: "You don't." Force consumers to choose one entry point, that is. Don't decide that, since most people won't pay for most things, no one will pay for anything -- or vice versa. Give people a free version and a pay version, an ad-supported and an ad-free version, an interactive and a non-interactive version, a printable version so we can take articles on the Metro, a mobile version, and a one-price-buys-everything version. If Firefox readers (like me) are willing to pay extra (not me) for a version optimized for Firefox, great!

Posted by: drrico | May 21, 2009 8:17 AM | Report abuse

Rob, Nice insights, getting the similarities in your business to the change in music. To few are spending time straining to look forward unrestricted by existing structures. I spent 25 years as a serial-abuser of tech start-ups before launching my consulting that focuses on just that.

Man would I love to tell the Post powers how to take a great brand to the next steps (and not that they aren't doing a pretty decent job). One venue that seems obvious, to make the most of ad revenue for a site, you've got to expand your audience, and being the "Washington" Post is limiting as well as a strength. I'd launch a separate site, the World Post, built to be just that, a true international piece, culling your own (and others) content into a summary of news for the global-oriented consumer.

But at the heart, we are seeing the first steps of business understanding that it is not enough to be in business to make money. When there comes a higher purpose for your existence, and revenues and profits become secondary, is when you start to evolve towards a brand with a mission - and that creates insane brand loyalty amongst your base that identifies with that. Tim Brady

Posted by: Tim6555 | May 21, 2009 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Charge non-subscribers for access to the chats. WaPo gives away free restaurant advice from Tom Sietsema, in-depth discussions from the politics and national desks, whatever it is that Weingarten does, and of course Rob's tech advice and troubleshooting (in which he, on a weekly basis, does the jobs of Comcast, Verizon and Dell support all at once). Most web users are savvy enough to be getting these ad-free, so make them pay if they don't subscribe to the paper.

Posted by: RG00 | May 21, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Pegoraro, one thing newspapers can do is stop annoying their web site viewers.

For example, The Washington Post recently modified its web site such that the lower portion of the home page does not render legibly when using Firefox with the Adblock Plus add-in. This commenced about two weeks ago.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | May 21, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

The simplest thing for Washingtonpost.com to do is to create a static website which would display 12 or 24 hour old news without the chats. This would be free for everyone and have ads. For print subscribers or web-only subscribers, they would have what exists now including chats. If you really wanted, you could create a super premium subscription which had no ads. This would follow a hulu-type setup where you wouldn't be able to watch a show until it had already aired on regular tv (thus the 12 or 24 hour lag), plus it harkens back to a day like the old print model, where there is a finite product that has less actual utility (and saleability) as it gets older. Hell, anyone can get the physical Washington Post for free (they collect weekly in the green hard plastic recycling bins) if they want to wait long enough.

Posted by: mafflerbach | May 21, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Add me to the list of annoyed Firefox users. Thanks for the poster(s) who mentioned AdBlock. It turns out that you can work around this problem by clicking the red "ABP" stop-sign icon in the upper-right-corner of the Firefox window when viewing the WashingtonPost home page.

Of course the net effect is that you have to see the Post's ads, but only for that one page (the WP home page).

Posted by: jaepstein63 | May 21, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

slar: Since we haven't thought to charge for such a research service, I can tell you that we did review one of their July 2006 shows at the Cat (can't tell if they had more than one show); here's the piece.

Bitter_Bill: I took the liberty of installing the latest version of AdBlock Plus in Firefox 3.0.10, using the first U.S.-based blocking list presented, and I don't see any of the problems you describe on our home page. So if we're going out of our way to annoy AdBlock users--something our Web developers don't have time for anyway--we're doing a lousy job of it. There's also this: Given that you're asking for free tech support in your quest to avoid the ads that pay for this site--not just the worst offenders, but almost all of them--are you sure you haven't hit your quota for effrontery this week?

richmurphy: I don't like it when we run ads coded to defeat pop-up blockers either. (That's what I mean by "worst offenders" above.) Maybe there's some underlying economic reason why we haven't done this--note, no MBA here--but I, too, would like to see us offer a "pay for ad-free reading" option.

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | May 21, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

To fix the Firefox problem, add an exception in AdblockPlus to allow media.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/ad/*

This doesn't actually let in any ads, so far as I can tell. It just lets in some javascript and CSS files that control the formatting of the front page.

Posted by: daniel_f_morgan | May 21, 2009 5:01 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to post this on my Facebook page. How come there's not a link here to let me do that? Other stories have a Save/Share link that includes Facebook.

Posted by: NobodyImportant | May 21, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Well, Mr. Pegoraro, it is frustrating you do not see the same issue I do. But we see that there are others responding to your columns who do. I am using a Windows XP machine, by the way, if that makes a difference.

I actually like most ads. I find them informational and helpful often enough. I object to the -- what do you call it -- the "drop-down" ads that fill the entire screen, requiring you to close them before you can see what you want. No other web media site I use uses that method. Before the post starting using that type of ad a couple of months ago or so, it did not enter my mind to block ads.

Anyway, I am fine for paying for content. I don't know exactly what I pay the Wall Street Journal online -- about $120 a year or so. I cancelled my ft.com subscription when it almost doubled to $199 a year. I'd pay the Post. Maybe in the $5-10 a month range.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | May 21, 2009 6:25 PM | Report abuse

Rob,
FF3.5b4 with AdBlock Plus has the issue. allowing "/wp-srv/ad/*" fixes it.

As a print subscriber (I learned to read back in the 60's by reading the Post) I feel I already pay for the Post. So I have no guilt about skipping the ads online.

Posted by: wiredog | May 22, 2009 8:03 AM | Report abuse

I subscribe to the dead-tree edition of the WP, and would probably pay $5/mo or so for the on-line edition, mainly for the chats and the on-line blogs (like this one . . . ).

I might add that charging a nominal fee (and I think $5/mo is a reasonable amount) would decrease the troll population enormously.

Posted by: mdean3 | May 22, 2009 10:08 AM | Report abuse

I actually belong to a pay-for "news service" called STRATFOR. They market themselves as providing CIA-like geopolitical analyses and intelligence reports. I will go to places like CNN or the Post to see what's being reported, and see the salacious, but I don't rate their analysis of the news very highly. News articles feel like stenography, which is necessary, but that's not where it should end.

One problem with news web sites is the old saw "yesterday's news is for wrapping fish." Since they only give me the headline news or story of the day, I have to go to Wikipedia for background information. It’s unfortunate that you compete with free, and seem to be losing. Right now, it seems like each article must stand on its own, rather than building on other articles, so I would expect each article is more difficult/costly to write.

Another thing I think I’d pay for would be a wikipedia-type site handling local news. Quick – what are the three major issues for the MD general assembly? How about Mongtomery county? How about Silver Spring? I see there’s construction going on as I drive in to work – where can I find out what’s being built?

I think local newspapers have a great opportunity to be the “front door” for local communities. If I wanted to move to Washington today I wouldn’t think of the Post web site as telling me much about local neighborhoods, businesses, neighborhoods to move to, to avoid. I think there would be some good ad revenue from local businesses who wanted to make sure their advertisements were going to their local customers. A restaurant isn’t going to advertise on Google. But if you had a “Hello Bethesda” section they might. Same same for classified listings. If the web site were attractive and popular, wouldn't it feel right to people to advertise here rather than on Cars.com?

Posted by: tokrueger | May 22, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

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