this space intentionally left blank

December 12, 2012

Filed under: journalism»industry

The Platform

Last week, Rupert Murdoch's iPad-only tabloid The Daily announced that it was closing its doors on Thursday, giving it a total lifespan of just under one year. Lots of people have written interesting things about this, because the schadenfreude is irresistable. Felix Salmon makes a good case against its format, while former staffer Peter Ha noted that its publication system was unaccountably terrible. Dean Starkman at CJR believes, perhaps rightly, that it will take more than a Murdoch rag going under to form any real conclusions.

Around the same time, Nieman Lab published a mind-bogglingly silly pitch piece for 29th Street Publishing, a middleman that republishes magazine content as mobile apps. "What if getting a magazine into Apple's Newsstand was as easy as pushing the publish button on a blog?" Nieman asked on Twitter, demonstrating once again that the business side of the news industry will let nothing stand between it and the wrong questions.

The problem publications face is not that getting into Apple's storefront is too hard--it's that they have a perfectly good (cross-platform) publishing system right in front of them in HTML ("as easy as pushing the publish button on a blog," one might say) and they're completely unwilling to find a business model for it other than throwing up their hands and ceding 30% of their income (and control of their future) to a third party in another industry with a completely different set of priorities. (Not to mention the barriers to search, sharing, and portability that apps throw up.)

What publishers need to be doing is finding a way to monetize the content that they've already got and can already publish using tools that are--well, probably not quite as easy as blogging, but undoubtably far easier than becoming a mobile software developer. One way to do that is with a leaky paywall: it's been a definite success for the NYT, and the Washington Post is considering one. I suspect that when calmer heads prevail, this will become a lot more common. The problem with paywalls is mobile: even if consumers were not conditioned to want "apps," sign-in on mobile is a frustrating user experience problem.

But let's say apps remain a hot topic in news boardrooms. I've been thinking about this for a few days: how could the news industry build a revenue model out of the best of both worlds, with clean mobile HTML deployed everywhere but leveraging the easy payment mechanism of an app store--assuming, in fact, that "payment is hard" is actually a problem the industry has, and given the NYT's success, I'm not honestly sure that it is. My best solution takes inspiration from two-factor authentication (which everyone should be using).

My plan goes like this: just like today, you visit the app store on your platform of choice. You download a yearly "subscription key" application, pay for it in the usual way, and then open it. Behind the scenes, the app talks to the content server and generates a one-time password, then opens a corresponding URL in the default site browser, setting a cookie so that further browser visits will always be signed in--but you as the user don't see any of that. All you see is that the content has been unlocked for you without any sign-in hassle. Next year, you renew your subscription the same way.

In an ideal world, there would be a standard for this that platform authors could implement. Your phone would have one "site key" application (not without precedent), and content publishers could just plug add-on apps into it for both purchasing and authentication. Everyone wins. But of course, that's not a sexy startup idea for milking thousands of dollars from gullible editors. Nor is it helpful for computer companies looking to keep you from leaving their platform: I'm pretty sure an application like this violates Apple's store rules. Personally, that's reason enough for me to consider them unacceptable, because I don't believe the correct response to exploitation is capitulation. That's probably why nobody lets me make business decisions for a major paper.

Assume we can't publish an app: two-factor auth still works in lots of ways that are mobile-friendly, post-purchase. You could visit the website, click a big "unlock" button and be sent a URL via text message, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever else you'd like. A site built in HTML and monetized this way works everywhere, instead of locking you into the iPad or another single platform. It lets the publisher, not a third party, retain control of billing and access. And it can be layered onto your existing system, not developed from scratch. Is it absolutely secure? No, of course not. But who cares? As the Times has proven, all you need to do is monetize the people who are willing to pay, not the pirates.

This is just one sane solution that lets news organizations control their own content, and their destiny. Will it happen? Probably not: the platform owners won't let them, and news organizations don't seem to care about having a platform that they themselves own. To me this is a terrible shame: after years of complaining that the Internet made everyone a publisher, news organizations don't seem to be interested in learning that same lesson when the shoe is on the other foot. But perhaps there's an upside: for every crappy app conversion startup funded by desparate magazine companies, there are jobs being created in a recovering economy. Thanks for taking one for the team, journalism.

Future - Present - Past