Look to US for digital model, says editor

Story by Kris Wall

The challenge for the future of Australian publishing is to find a business model which suits localised publications, says Sunday Herald Sun deputy editor Matt Cunningham.

The 2012 Hegarty Prize winner recently returned from a trip to the United States where he was observing the business models now being used in regional publications across the country.

Mr Cunningham says his experience showed that a successful model must capitalise on new media’s reach with old media’s pay structure.

“For years, newspapers have been acting as sole news providers and giving away their content online,” he said.

“People still want to read newspapers, with quality and content being crucial. The most obvious thing is if you want people to pay for something, stop giving it away for free.”

Mr Cunningham focused particularly on two newspapers for their differing strategies in dealing with the shift to digital – the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s digital-first strategy, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s print-centric mentality.

His trip highlighted the resilience of print, even in a digital-first environment. The New Orleans Times-Picayune centred its new strategy around publishing breaking news immediately online.

“Everything [is posted] online first, holding nothing for print,” Mr Cunningham said of the Times-Picayune.

“The [print] publication was built of everything that’s accumulated for the web.”

It attempted to further its digital strategy by cutting its print publication to a tri-weekly [Wednesday, Friday and Sunday] from a daily, but it was too much, too soon.

There were protests against the new publishing schedule and other publications began encroaching on its territory to pick up the print shortfall across the week.

The paper countered, and in April 2013 announced plans to print a tabloid edition on the days without a designated paper, returning to a full daily cycle.

Mr Cunningham said it was an interesting strategy, but the model adopted by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was the true hope for the future of publishing.

In 2002, it confronted online readers with a simple choice: pay, or read your news elsewhere.

“It made people pay above the full amount for a monthly subscription for the newspaper,” he said.

Mr Cunningham said the model could be successfully implemented in Australia, but newspapers had to act fast.

Kris Wall is a second year journalism student at Charles Sturt University

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