At the end of August, we had published first post in a series of entries summarizing our knowledge and experience in the media world. It ran into nine pages of text and had even longer title (“Media in the digital age – or how freelancers, press photography and newspapers can beat up the crisis”). It sounds so know it-all, unintentionally, but it really isn’t. It was created as our own voice in an ongoing debate about where journalism is going and what is the future of creative minds that often work freelance in the field. We realize the situation on the market is far from perfect, but we wanted to find some practical solutions that could tip the scales back into the “profitable” regions. Previous part concentrated on how photo and news archives could be used to create a difference. This post will be a bit different. We want to talk a bit about layouts, ethical content, pay – walls and newspaper gadgets. Four elements that look like they have nothing in common, but that’s just because you don’t think outside of the box.
To access the previous entry click the link below:
Next year it will be sixteen years since Rita and I left high school with a burning desire to do something practical, anything really as long as it was not theory. Since then we have worked as cultural journalists, we organized conventions, exhibitions, wrote blogs, attended panels and conferences, painted, photographed and promoted other artists. Sometimes it was our job and we were paid for it, sometimes we freelanced, sometimes we worked for free and relied on daily jobs. The smallest thing we did was to help around at a miniscule comic convention in our home town. The biggest was bringing World Press Photo exhibition to Malta – a project with a 20K budget. Truth be told, we are not even sure how to call ourselves at this point (we do like “cultural bloggers” label though). What we do know, is that we have been around the block few times over in three countries (Poland -Malta-UK) and we have seen the good, the bad, the ugly and the tragic. You have got to try your best to surprise us – we have seen a fair share. What we say in our posts is directly derived from our experience and our observations (and research of million + hours on the World Wide Web). This entry may not be a game-changer for the industry, but we try our best 😉
Before we will get to the meritum of our post, we want you to read an article that appeared in Seattle Times. We realize that it may sound somehow pompous but if there was ever a “prophetic” feature in a newspaper, it would be this column from March 17, 1991:
Firstly it puts down in plain writing what sells a newspaper: a mix of hard news (“breaking news”), soft news (opinions, columns, and celebrity stuff) and advertising. Secondly, it admits what has been whispered around the newsrooms for ages – the little things that media workers find unimportant can actually sell the newspaper – just read that paragraph about food column on Wednesdays.
It was written in 1991, remember – a whole generation away. At the very end of the article you can find this sentence, and we think it was revolutionary back in the day to even spell it:
“Are newspapers in the midst of an evolution? Definitely.”
We will admit it. Prior to finding this article (told you Rita can find just about anything on the Net), we thought that the changes in the industry started around 2003-2004, when the first wave of crisis ravaged media world, books and comic publishers. We were eager to rationalize that the cultural periodicals were first to be hit. We were wrong. The revolution and constant changes in the media world are omnipresent; they were as demanding and challenging at the beginning of the 1991 as they are at the end of 2013. We can be excused though for overlooking this; back in the 90s we would not pay attention to anybody unless they were on MTV and our stint with journalism was limited to writing a music section for a school newspaper. But we have come a long way (also known as getting old 😛 ).
So, now that we defined what sells a newspaper, we also have a solid ground under our feet for a further discussion – media is ever changing environment, prone to drastic turns overnight and always on the edge. This is by no means a safe place to wait for retirement, as it is driven by adrenaline, constant insecurity and evolution.
We have to agree with Seattle Times. To avoid bumpy ride from one curve to another, the newsroom must have a careful driver (the editor or director of the media house) and a good strategy. Especially, since we seem to live in era of “Google economy”:
We said before: set up your archives and capitalize on it when needed. Here’s a good strategy, part two!
Let’s get visual!
We will start with the layouts, because looks are important in the media world. In the battle for revenues and readers, the graphic department is your biggest ally. They will be responsible for executing technical side of the creative vision. The biggest eye – candy can be planned in the boardroom but eventually, it will be those guys with their noses in the Mac’s that will deliver it. When deadlines are pressing, the graphic department will also edit photos, so editor must oversee if the standards are in place.
Lay-out of a newspaper or interface of a website must be readable and catching. It has to capture the attention of a prospective reader from the news-stands or from the computer screen. We have stressed it before, but we will repeat it here. We live in visual times and we judge the paper by its front page. If it’s not grabbing people’s attention in the first 30 seconds, then they will not pick it up. Tabloids discovered it decades ago with their flashy covers and incredible headliners. If you ever wonder why it is The Sun or Daily Mirror that sells out at the end of the day – now you know. There is however a line between being cheap and being interesting. If a daily newspaper runs a flashy front page without a good reason, it may damage its credibility and lose readers. Over the years, newspapers have learned a good lesson to design their pages in such a way to be visually stunning and informative in the same time.
Nothing works better than a good (practical) example – so if you have a minute to spare, please see the blog below. It will show you how the newspaper can be re-designed section by section. Good old fashioned “before” and “after”, straight out of the graphic designer’s lair:
Magazines – unlike the newspapers – have better conditions to establish themselves on the graphic front. The quality of paper is better; you have more time to work on each page and enough space to balance between text and images. Most importantly, you have got many people to work on the final project as well. And you can really use your team to enhance the magazine visually. For example you can trust your photographers` instincts:
Rita and I spent nearly four years working for different magazines, most importantly MANGAzyn – comic/animation and video games magazine. Rita was the main writer in our team. I was providing photos and when I was not shooting, I was responsible for finding suitable graphics for our articles: screenshots, artworks, press packs, hi res graphics for posters. I was the one with a trained eye for good quality materials – as most photographers are. On several occasions materials I found landed on the covers. In March 2004 our biggest project was issued. A whole issue dedicated to games called neatly MANGAzyn 100% Games. It took us a year to complete it and a huge part of it was the way we have planned the visual side. It was a revolutionary issue and I’m glad to have left a small mark on the history of the journalism in Poland 😉
MANGAzyn 100% Games was first periodical in Europe to report on Korean comics and games, we also were the first in the country to give the magazine feel of an art-book. We had our friend Pablo from another gaming magazine working with us on this task. We discussed each and every page, each screen and piece of artwork (usually our meetings were held in a local arcade over Mortal Kombat 3 machine). When we uploaded the graphics on the FTP server, our editor called back and shouted at us for blocking the bandwidth. The graphic team also had a hard job choosing the materials for the layout. But when the magazine came out it had this big VISUAL SHOCK mark on the cover. We have recently checked online and some issues of that magazine became collector items on Ebay. Looking back at the experience, both Rita and I agree that it was our interest in art (don’t forget Rita is also a painter and a bit of photographer too) that gave us the idea to turn the usual gaming magazine into an art- book and to use larger amount of illustrations than other magazines at that time. We were getting a lot of attention when the issue came out, even from mainstream media. We will write about the experience in a different post on the blog since it will be ten years anniversary next year. For now we hope we have proved our point that good layout is extremely important when it comes to newspapers. It’s 25% of your success. The other component is obviously content and the security of it.
(To) pay-wall or (to) open source – that is the question.
A decade ago, only the scientific periodicals were charging their readers for the access to articles and reportages. Things like premium subscription online were simply non existent. Handful of titles (that also included MANGAzyn) had hidden parts on their website which were password protected. You had to buy printed copy of the magazine then find the password and you could access some bonuses online. These days when printing slowly goes the way of the Dodo, a good security system for the online page is a must. We will admit, pay walls (system that requires a paid subscription) are hugely controversial. Not everybody likes them, people believe that once something is on the Internet, it must remain open source (meaning that it is open to all and not restricted in any way) and free. Others argue, that journalists and photographers cannot work for free, especially taking the current poor working conditions into consideration. We believe that the truth lies in between: general sections of a news portal should remain accessible to all (such as breaking news), but other parts can be protected (it takes a lot of work to produce a good reportage and the writer/photographer should be paid well for it).
Restricting newspaper content and asking people to pay for it does not always work. The Atlantic had to give up their pay wall, the same concept failed completely across South Africa (for example for the legendary Johannesburg Star). Guardian had to remove the pay wall from their Eyewitness app.
However there are examples that show this concept is bringing good revenues:
– PIANO system which is now used by most newspapers in Eastern Europe is considered bug-free, reliable and user friendly. This idea is based on traffic free website (with general news) and paid specialized content (such as columns, reportages, photo essays etc), with a technical backup that eliminates technical mistakes and hacking attempts. Polish biggest daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza is one of the most successful users of PIANO.
In -depth description of this pay-wall system can be found on Wikipedia:
Or on the official website: http://www.pianomedia.com/
– Mediapart`s in-house subscription and hard news content only. French online portal Mediapart was created in 2008 as a response to readers` dissatisfaction with celebrity news being reported on a daily basis. From its inception, they were breaking into investigative journalism, reportages and own correspondences (Le Club part of the portal). Their subscription system eliminated advertisement completely from the website. In 2012 company reported over 60 000 unique subscribers and over 700 000 EUR of profit by offering specialized and serious content, showing that there is a demand for analytical journalism.
News regarding other pay-wall systems can be found at: http://paidcontent.org/ It is also a paradise for tech buffs with all the news and information about upcoming security measures.
There are several types of pay-walls that newspapers can implement. The complete blockade (or “hard” type) will eliminate you from browsing the content of a website in general, the soft version (which we find the most suitable one) allows access to opinion pieces, general news and celebrity materials. There are also mixed variations that allow you to read part of the article only or assign you a pool of ten reportages per month for free.
Pay-wall systems (and newly created API – application programming interfaces) are closely linked to ethics. Let us come back to the controversial aspect for a moment. The main argument against is that hiding your content behind a paid subscription goes against the very principle of journalism – the right to information. Journalism is a service industry – it provides society with awareness. Critics often ask what will happen to the flow of information if all the newspapers will wall themselves up. On the other hand of the spectrum is the journalism as a business model and for a newspaper to be up and running – the business must be successful. Defenders of paid systems draw attention to the fact that other people’s work simply cannot be put out there for free or it will ravage creative industries. And to be honest, we have something to worry about. If you read the online pools, 70% of people will tell you that they prefer to look for content somewhere else than pay a minimal subscription. If we look at the rates that musicians are getting from Spotify or how downloading of books contributed to closures of libraries (if you don’t believe us, just ask uncle Google what UK government plans about local libraries – it’s nothing short of terrifying!), there may come a day when we will no longer have artists, musicians, journalists, writers or photographers – because everything was for free out there and people had to move to other jobs to make a living.
This discussion about the access to information is nothing new. We had seen something similar in the 90s with the TV stations, when the cable channels introduced scambling (encrypting or coding of a signal). Viewers had to buy decoders and pay monthly access to watch for example Sky News. BSkyB came under a media storm when they first introduced their strategy to code the signal, but they didn’t back down. In the end viewers had to adjust and cable providers had to implement specialized packages. Other stations followed suit, while BSkyB hit a mark of being accessed in 10 million homes in 2010, Europe’s first pay-TV platform in to achieve that milestone.
We have been thinking – if TV viewers accepted the pay-platforms, why newspaper readers don’t want to pay as little as 3 EUR for a monthly subscription? Isn’t it just one and the same thing? Perhaps, the devil lies in the details, or rather in the relationship with your reader?
Why ethical content and a good premium system could mean more revenues?
There is an eye opening article published by Italian freelancer Francesca Borri. For working in a war zone in Syria, she was paid as little 70 USD per piece. Not enough to cover basic needs like insurance or equipment. This article can be seen in a link below:
This article shocked a lot of people when it first came out as this is exactly what happens to creative industries when their work is downgraded to content only shared on social media. Pay – walls were introduced mostly as a dam to stop the trend of seeing other’s work as a free stuff. And you know what they say: if you get everything for nothing, you start to take it for granted.
We honestly believe that there can be a common ground between business side of journalism, the creative forces (often freelancers) and readers. But to keep the media house profitable, the journalists paid and the reader satisfied, inevitable change in perception must take place. Gone are the days of reader being just receiver of news as a product and journalists sitting on a high moral horse and knowing it all. Today, reader must be a partner to media house and must be engaged in the news – making process. Reader needs to feel responsible for newspapers and be a participant in its projects.
There is something we can learn from TV stations: viewers feel very possessive about their favourite channels. Try to cut one out from the cable package and the viewers will come calling in and they won’t be nice to you. They also feel responsible for their channels. In August 2003 CBS and Time Warner got into a heated argument over fees which resulted in over three million of subscribers in US being unable to watch the broadcasts. What brought both sides to the negotiating table was sheer anger of the public.
Newspaper doesn’t need to have three million followers, but it is always good to have a strong back up from the community that they serve. Guardian deputy editor Katharine Vine summed up nicely what can be done to bring readers and newspapers together:
Allowing readers to contribute to the stories to make the report more accurate
Admitting mistakes – transparency strengthens trust in the newspaper
Being open for tips and potential breaking news – have a channel for communication open and advertise it.
Ms Vine would disagree with us on pay – walls, but we would like to add another point to the list she proposed:
Use the premium fees from pay -walls to fund the content that people want to read
We have all heard about crowd sourcing. Portals like Kickstarter or Pledge Music allow musicians or artists to collect money directly from the fans, who then receive goods upon the amount they paid for. Part of the profit stays with the service provider.
Similar idea can be applied to newspapers. Let us use again the example of Francesca Borri. In her article she mentions that she works on a piece about social impact of organisations such as Al-Qaida and their networking among poverty stricken communities. However rates she is offered make it impossible for her to continue with the research, she also feels that editors often discourage journalists on the ground from picking up such complex stories, favouring bloodshed instead.
Now let us imagine that part of the subscription fees from the readers was invested in the freelancers on the frontlines. It would allow journalists to be fairly paid for their work in dangerous circumstances; newspaper would receive a complex and serious piece from the source and the readers would enjoy exclusive content and knew that their own money contributed to the final result. This is not only an ethical content and industry solidarity, but also a signal for the readers that they are partly responsible for their newspaper and through it, for the community and well being of other people in the world who may not have a voice otherwise.
Gadgets – a little extra with the newspaper
Right, we have reached the last segment of this longish post. This part will have some illustrations, so we hope you are still awake! In our previous post we argued the importance of a functional photo archives and its many uses that can bring additional revenues for a newspaper. Right now we want to explore it a bit more in relation to newspaper gadgets.
You will be perfectly entitled to your opinion if you find this idea silly. However coming from a comic/video games/ hobby magazine background, we know the power of a good poster or a demo CD. Good gadget requires a lot of work to get it and it does strengthen sales. We can tell you stories how it took us a year to receive a permission from Microsoft/ Team Ninja to have a poster from game called Dead or Alive for our special issue of MANGAzun 100% Games (it was never published but that’s a different story) or how we had to pitch with digital artists like Carnelian or Soa Anala for small pin ups.
In the last 15 years gadgets became integral part of any newspaper. Back in our day, MANGAzyn used to have CD, comics, game demos and deluxe issues (“Kamikaze” insert with columns and more mature articles and separate issues called Extra sold every quarter) in its offer to attract buyers. Other newspapers went for anything: Bollywood movies, special thematic issues and even a Prince record. It is actually funny, how music publishers protested when Prince (or Artist formerly known as Prince) released his album with Mail on Sunday in 2007. You can read about it here:
What gets sold with a newspaper is actually a big business in itself. So having a functional photographic archive can be very helpful indeed. It can for example allow media house to create their own gadgets which can be either sold on their own or be presented to subscribers. Coffee mugs, post cards with archival images, photographic cards for all occasions – you can tap into souvenirs market and target both locals and tourists in your destination thus creating a niche for yourself. Real strength of such gadgets would lie in difference from anybody else.
Let us show you how prospective gadgets could look like, because over the years we managed to grab some fine examples:
Postcards – they can come in various shapes and sizes, from exclusive Hallmark photographic cards to small historical representations of how life looked back when. These two cards below were inserted into Malta Independent on Sunday (correct us if we are wrong) back in 2006. There were more of them every week and we remember that people were very pleased with getting them. We were one of those who bought newspaper for the cards and a historical article that went along with it. Beautiful combo to be introduced for an Island that offers so many spots to visit for tourists and locals, too bad it was discontinued after several weeks.
In 1980s Maltese stationery ABC printed a series of photographic cards in the UK – using their own stock and photo archives of various places in Malta. We came across the cards this September as ABC decided to get rid of the old stock and put them for free grabs in their shop in Valletta. Cards are in a bad condition but what a rarity they present – they were probably first photo postcards ever produced on the island!
The last card was being produced by PR and Advertisement Company ARF who often collaborate with the city council of Bytom in Poland. This card shows beautiful Kosciuszki square situated in the middle of Bytom as it was seen at the turn of XX century by using an actual photograph from the era. This square existed up to 2007 where it was ravaged to make a supermarket Agora. The design of whole city was ruined and it is considered now a public shame for whole Poland but the square is …gone. Bytom was industrial German city built completely in Bauhaus and neo-classical styles that are disappearing fast across the Silesian region. It suffered complete degradation in the last twenty years; we are heart broken every time we are in the area, because we went here to high school. This card is often used as a proof how once a beautiful and spacious the city was.
Coffee cups – This cup was bought in 2008 in an artisan shop Galeria w Szafie (Gallery in a wardrobe) in Bytom. What you can see printed on the fine bone china are drawings of local Silesian artist Franciszek Dziadek showing the landmarks of the town of Bytom itself. Dziadek dedicated his whole career to design of various books, periodicals and newspapers in the region. Being a true legend and institution, it was a local initiative to introduce a series of coffee cups with his works, aimed at first for the use of media workers. It is very popular among local journalists who, as we all know, live on coffee and take away grabs when working. Somehow the cups also became public favourite – including our dad who makes it a point to start a day with a fine cup of coffee each morning when visiting Malta (dad actually brought this cup from Poland during one of his trips to ensure he had suitable kitchenware to use when on holidays). We just love the idea to incorporate works of a person who dedicated his life to design newspapers into something that can become ultimate newspaper’s gift. And it caters beautifully for general public too – after how many truly artistic cups you see on display? If you look closely at the artworks they are small masterpieces and the finishing is nothing like the usual. Quality and art make a supreme gift for a subscriber – they can now start their morning having coffee and read their news in style.
Post-cards, coffee cups, coasters, posters, themed collections are part of the media landscape. They can be turned into small works of art and sought items. It is all up to the creativity and business approach of a newspaper.
One thing is for sure – investing in proper layout, good premium system, content and tightening bonds with readers will result in one way or anther.
If you are curious how the newspaper market is slowly recovering due to various measures, you may find this final link interesting:
Thanks for reading this post and we hope to present you soon with the last one chapter.
Mal + Rita