This afternoon we get two bleak portrayals of how old-media is doing in this "new media" world. The Internet, which at first scared purveyors of old fashioned journalism, looked like its savior for a brief moment, sometime around the same time Steve Jobs released the iPad. But, it now looks scary again. At least for the most traditional media companies, which have failed to adapt in ways that draw audiences or save their bottom lines.
Our first sob story comes from Technology Review's Jason Pontin, who describes the big app myth. Apps, seen as an easy way to engage digital readers turned into a money-suck for Pontin and many others. "Like almost all publishers, I was badly disappointed. What went wrong? Everything," he writes. In short, here's "what went wrong."
- Apple demanded a 30 percent cut of all sales. "Profit margins in single-copy sales are thinner than 30 percent; publishers were thus paying Apple to move issues," he writes.
- Adaptation of print issues to digital was harder than expected. "A large part of the problem was the ratio of the tablets: they possessed both a "portrait" (vertical) and "landscape" (horizontal) view, depending on how the user held the device," he continues. And the different screen sizes presented problems, too, leading publishers to produce multiple versions of one issue.
- The biggest problem: apps work too much like PDFs, and not enough like living Webpages. "The apps were, in the jargon of information technology, "walled gardens," and although sometimes beautiful, they were small, stifling gardens," continues Pontin.
- And, the way sales worked in the digital world, publishers couldn't make up for all these additional costs. "Without subscribers or many single-copy buyers, and with no audiences to sell to advertisers, there were no revenues to offset the incremental costs of app development," he writes.
Basically, a print-minded way of thinking about things just did not work, even though the platform promised to deliver.
We see a similar inability to adapt on a digital platform in a piece by Buzzfeed's John Herrman, who discovered the sad state of Facebook's Social Reader, which launched last year. Herman presents a series of all-downhill charts, plotting the slipping popularity of this revolutionary integration of social and news. Just this week, The Washington Post has lost 4.3 million of its subscribers. It's not the only media company losing its Social Reader stake, but it's particularly jarring, since The Post had a special relationship with Facebook, getting its hands on the tech before anyone else. Also, as we learned from AdWeek today, The Post isn't doing all that well.
Herrman calls this a "full-on collapse," attributing the failure to the inability to really understand the Internet and the way people share. "Social Readers always seemed a little too share-y, even for Facebook; they felt more like the kind of cold, descriptive, invisible and yet mandatory services we're used to seeing from Google rather than genuinely new and useful tools for spreading information," he writes. Like the app problem, these analog-minded people can't make it work online. There's just a total misunderstanding, as The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal points out, in his criticism of The Post's latest digital "strategy": slideshows. (Psst, old-media, he also gives some hints on how to win at the Internet.) Writes Madrigal:
I'm sympathetic to the business concerns of the media industry. I really am. But this myth that slideshows are the path to salvation has got to be put into a rocket and sent hurtling into the sun. People know when your product is cheap; there is no "trick" of the web. The sad truth is that to win on the Internet you have to do good reporting and analysis, write great headlines, empower individual staffers to embed themselves in communities that can serve up scoops and distribute finished stories, and understand the social ecosystems that bring visitors to your site.
Old media companies might want to look more closely at digital-first media companies, like The Awl network or Gawker. Beyond having the benefit of saving on old-media burdens -- like printing presses -- these companies also have an inherent understanding of the Web that these old-guys just don't.