Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Micropayments Vs. Leveraging the Backlist

We've been arguing about this for better than a decade -- editors, publishers, journalists, micropayment facilitation companies, media pundits, and so on.
Can micropayments save journalism as we know/knew it?
Here's a decent overview of the dust-up, by Matthew Ingram over at the Nieman Journalism Lab.
The basic gist is that people will pay for something they can keep (iTunes), versus something transitory they can consume.
Of course, people can keep a newspaper -- which has limited shelf-life by design: The paper is cheap (by design), the ink gets on your fingers, and clipping articles these days for archival purposes is largely a past-time of the elderly, the homeless, and the shut-ins. Also authors.
I've worked for a number of newspapers, and at one point, was sitting in a meeting of staffers who had been at the paper for decades.
I was relatively new to the town, and had relied upon the archives of the newspaper to steep myself in the history of the city, as well as past coverage that I could leverage to offer my articles perspective.
These, traditionally, are kept in a place called the morgue. Where old news copy goes to die.
What's fascinating is how much good stuff is in there.
And how much of it is non-digital. At this paper, the digital archives went back as far as five years, healthy for a paper of that time.
To whom, other than a journalist, is this stuff still useful? Anyone doing research, one might imagine. Genealogists. Families. Crime writers. Historians. People looking to move there, perhaps.
It occurred to me that archival content, to which the news organization -- local, regional, or metropolitan -- still holds rights is a major unleveraged asset.
If news is not scarce, then it's commodity, and it must be free.
But OLD news (while there's a lot of it), particularly that material written by the boots on the ground IN a city, versus AP commodity content, is still valuable. May be valuable. To someone. Someday.
In publishing, Bob Stein (of Voyager/Night Kitchen fame) once told me: "The model is to have a deep backlist." Stein was looking toward the future. You can never know what will be a hit, and when, so gamble on covering your niche (in his case, really smart people) well.
Newspapers are already sitting on a deep backlist of content, some of it more than a hundred years old. That you can't find anywhere, except on 'fiche.
I was really happy sitting in the morgue, looking at histories of families that stretched back six generations. Old comics. Old Op-ed columns that capture the essence of the changing community over time.
Had deadlines not loomed, I could have been quite content to spend my weekends there, reading.
But I'm just one geek on a planet of 6.7 billion people.
Surely there are a few hundred thousand like me out there.
And that's a market.
And the content is scarce.
That newspapers have not digitized all their archives is a crime against history, historians, detail-oriented people, researchers, family-tree documentarians, and probably many more niches than I can attractively list in a blog.
Newspapers are institutionally-inclined to reject this idea as a potential market, because we're born and bred to focus on the next story.
The same is true (although decreasingly so) of TV stations. Radio stations and personalities seem to get it. Fresh Air by Teri Gross is a great example -- she bags the celebs on tape, and when they die or have a new book out (whichever comes first) she repurposes the interview, maybe tops it off with current content, and boom, there's a broadcast.
My past advocacy on this matter has been consistently ignored by multiple news organizations, both print and broadcast. It's either too expensive, or too big picture.
But I saw all the past footage at CBS -- it fills warehouses in NYC and New Jersey. All that friable film, and that inconsistently-labeled magnetic tape.
The morgues at newspapers are made of paper, or sitting on reels of 'fiche that even libraries don't have access to.
It could all go away tomorrow.
The archives are gold. Digitizing it and making it available behind a paywall is an awesome way to start a new revenue stream. Newspapers, magazines (Rolling Stone in particular, which is well on its way), and broadcast organizations should all do it.
Or a company should do it for them. Because otherwise, Google will.
If they're not too late.