Are Newspapers Civic Institutions or Algorithms?

The current state of the newspaper industry is unsettled at best: more than two hundred newspapers have either folded or stopped publishing their print editions since 2007. Even the most acclaimed newspapers in the country are downsizing their newsrooms or suspending home delivery of physical newspapers. Even after embracing social media, newspapers are still struggling with paywalls and subscriptions. As a result, the typical argument calls for supporting newspapers historically have been based on the idea of newspapers as a sort of civic institution that we, as a society, must preserve in the name of ideals (always capitalized) like Truth. But what if, instead, we begin to think of newspapers in perhaps a more mundane manner -- as algorithms for solving problems?

This idea of "newspaper as algorithm" builds on a larger secular trend: the widescale appification of the media industry. As Nicholas Carr pointed out in a brilliant piece for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard in December, one of the biggest trends of 2012 will be the continued segmentation and splicing of online newspaper content into apps for mobile devices:

"Appification promises to be the major force reshaping media in general and news media in particular during 2012. The influence will be exerted directly, through a proliferation of specialized media apps, as well as indirectly, through changes in consumer attitudes, expectations, and purchasing habits. There are all sorts of implications for newspapers, but perhaps the most important is that the app explosion makes it much easier to charge for online news and other content. That’s true not only when the content is delivered through formal apps but also when it is delivered through traditional websites, which may themselves come to be viewed by customers as a form of app. In the old world of the open web, paying for online content seemed at best weird and at worst repugnant. In the new world of the app, paying for online content suddenly seems normal. What’s an app store but a series of paywalls?"

This appification of media is brilliant on two levels. First, these apps make it possible to segment and track your audience, making them more valuable for advertisers. (What Carr refers to as "versioning") Secondly, these apps fundamentally shift the way we think about content - people are no longer consuming media, they are now downloading specialized algorithms. Online, people may not be willing to pay anything for content from the New York Times. In the physical world, they may not be willing to pay two bucks for a newspaper on the newsstand. In the Apple iTunes app store, however, they are willing to pay anywhere from $0.99 to $3.99 for a stylish app that's based on a superior algorithm.

If you think about this for a second, this is a profound change that the appification of media makes possible. Online or in the physical world, your product is worth zero. Add a mobile layer to it, and it’s suddenly worth something. Or, as Matthew Yglesias cheekily pointed out on Slate Moneybox the other day, Banal + Smartphone = New.

If you think about the most successful pay walls in the newspaper content business, it is always the big financial newspapers – notably, the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times – that have figured out how to charge for content online. By some estimates, The Wall Street Journal now has more than 400,000 paid subscribers and the Financial Times has 200,000 paid subscribers. The typical argument given for their success is that they have the best journalistic coverage, the best opinion writers and the best international coverage -- all of which combine to make them a must-read. But there is another reason lurking out there – people read the Wall Street Journal because it helps them make money. Among the financial newspapers, Barron’s is perhaps the most explicit about this relationship, with one of their taglines along the lines of, “Read us on Saturday, make money on Monday.” Yes, financial newspapers are algorithms that help you make money in financial markets.

Rather than convincing people to support a newspaper out of a sense of civic duty, a better plan would be to convince people to pay for newspapers because they are simply the best algorithms we have for optimizing our busy lives. The New York Times, for example, already has an app in the iTunes Apps Store for Election 2012 that helps you make sense of the 2012 campaign, combining great content with real-time data analysis. Expect to see even more specialized apps from media companies in 2012, and not just for consuming what we used to call "the news." As Jared Ficklin of frog design pointed out earlier this year about the importance of algorithms, "We live in the App Age and are entering new territory... Consumers will pay good money for an algorithm that gathers data and solves everyday problems.”

image: Businessman reading news on digital tablet at park / Shutterstock

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