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Without wanting to tread on the toes of any of my colleagues – notably Paul Bradshaw, who is a world-beating expert on all things online journalism – I had a thought today about the crossover between newspapers and the internet.

Don’t think of this so much as an “idea” like the other ideas I’ve had so far. Think of this more like a thought experiment, and an invitation to have a conversation in the comments.

Personally, for what it’s worth, I believe the idea of a blanket paywall for online news content is a huge mistake, because I think it misunderstands the internet, media consumption in general – and specifically, the different ways that people use newspapers and news content.

And I think that if you do consider some of the ways in which newspapers are consumed, a slightly different possible approach to the monetisation and development of newspapers in the digital age starts to reveal itself… and I don’t think anyone’s thought of it yet.

Though it’s entirely possible that they have, but not told me about it.

The idea, in brief, is that physical newspapers come with a download code.

I’ll explain…

It strikes me that there are three main categories of news consumers:

1) News junkies and professional news consumers
These are people for whom a newspaper is a daily ritual, or part of their job. They tend to scour the pages of the newspaper from end to end on a daily basis, know the names of the columnists, and pay close attention to anything remotely news-related on any platform. It might seem like an obvious thing to say – but they actually read all of the words. News is crucial and closely-read.

2) Casual news browsers and commuter-readers
This category includes people that like to have a newspaper to accompany them for a particular part of their day. They like to know what’s going on in the world (or to have their views reinforced), and there may be a particular section that they’ll zero in on (Finance, perhaps – or Sport) but they’ll skim and skip bits, looking for ‘interesting’ stuff. News is entertainment or information, but on the whole, it’s once over lightly on their way somewhere.

3) Online-only readers
These are people who read closely, but usually quite specifically. I’d count myself in this category. Newspapers themselves don’t really mean anything per se – much less ‘sections’ – but articles are linked to, shared and discussed online. The articles themselves, rather than the publication, are the point. They are not consumed as gospel or as ‘broadcasted knowledge’, but provide the seed of conversation. I suspect there’s a significant overlap between this category and bloggers.

Just to be clear about this – as a Type 3 news consumer, I’d probably never read more than half a dozen newspaper articles a day. Sometimes just one or two. Often none. There is no way I will pay for them, so don’t try and charge me. But if you make desirable stuff in a quantity that meets a real need (ie: it’s amazing, and you can’t get it elsewhere), or creates a market, then by all means charge money for that.

Shared interests
The three different categories have different things in common. Groups 1 and 2 like having paper. At least for now, it’s the most pleasant way to consume large quantities of news – particularly on the go. A big newspaper, a cup of coffee and perhaps a train journey somewhere nice. You can underline things, make cuttings, do the crossword, and read long articles without eyestrain.

Groups 1 and 3 share an interest in the news as a matter of record. They want for journalism and reportage to be searchable, indexed, archived and available as reference material – though their requirements are different. Group 1 wants an archive, Group 3 wants a source.

Newspaper/online hybrid
My idea is for daily newspapers to hybridise their media. It would have these components:

1) A perhaps less weighty print newspaper publication that contains all of the news of the day, targeted specifically at category 1 & 2 readers.

2) Full replication of the print newspaper on the web, and for that to contain permalinks for sharing online and blogging by category 3 readers.

3) A unique code to be printed in each physical newspaper. That’s the crux of this idea: buying a daily newspaper gives you a code that accesses further rich material online – usually the heavier indepth analysis, investigative journalism and long form essays. You also have the opportunity to include multimedia content: recorded interviews, extra photography, discussion and so on. Everyone who buys the paper gets to read all of that content, and it’s all indexed, databased and searchable.

The newspaper IS the paywall
By making (seriously good) extra content accessible to all newspaper purchasers, you allow all readers access to that material- and that material can be trailed and promoted in the paper itself.

However, by making it so that all of the daily news reportage that appears in the print edition also appears online, you allow your online readers, linkers, commenters and (let’s face it) promoters to do what they currently do so well.

The selfish trap
Of course, the big pitfall here is the temptation for news organisations to remove perfectly good, linkable stuff (the kind that would fit into my usual half-dozen reads) and put it in the secure online-only edition, in order to try and get the category 3 readers to try and buy your dead trees. Don’t bother – we never will.

The only way this would work is for generous and useful amounts of content to be available in both ways.

And perhaps – for the diehard paper enthusiasts who somehow have all day every day to plough through 124 pages of information, opinion and rhetoric – you could provide a deluxe print edition of all the longer content via paid subscription, delivered to the front door.

A press for all types
By cutting back on the sheer volume of paper that you’d need to print in order to make a satisfactory publication for a type 2 reader and a compelling enough free proposition to make you the number one online news source for the type 3 reader – you have the opportunity to superserve the type 1 reader, without cutting off access to the real democracy-enhancing investigative stuff for the vast majority of type 2 readers who are your loyal customers.

If they have the paper, they automatically have the access, should they wish to go and find it. There is no additional artificially-created barrier to an informed populace. If anything, you’re improving matters for democracy.

You’d probably be a much greener proposition too.

But on those days where you have an interesting article in the free & print edition, and it tells of a solid 3,000 word context piece or a half-hour unedited interview with subject of that article – maybe on those days, I’ll pick up a paper on my way home so I can grab a code – and then use the paper to wrap up some broken glass or line a birdcage at some later point.

“So…” he asked optimistically, “is that newspapers solved then?”

Having said all this, if you put Charlie Brooker, Rhodri Marsden or Mark Steel behind a paywall, I’d be very cross indeed. Think of them as key positioning statements for your brand, and spread them far and wide.

Table of contents for 30 Days of Ideas

  1. The other way of following first
  2. Now we’re up and dancing
  3. 30 days of ideas – 01: Keymash
  4. 30 days of ideas – 02: Radio Alerts
  5. 30 days of ideas – 03: Only Famous (a romantic comedy)
  6. 30 days of ideas – 04: Modcasts
  7. 30 days of ideas – 05: Numberless Calendar
  8. 30 days of ideas – 06: SpringCleanr
  9. 30 days of ideas – 07: Street Gallery
  10. 30 days of ideas – 08: Smart Business Cards
  11. 30 days of ideas – 09: Recordings in Concert
  12. 30 days of ideas – 10: Vinyl scanner
  13. 30 days of ideas – 11: Photo Stack-and-Scan
  14. 30 days of ideas – 12: A Box of Cool
  15. 30 days of ideas – 13: Karaoke-Tube Celebstar Idol
  16. 30 days of ideas – 14: I Made You A Tape
  17. 30 days of ideas – 15: Newspaper download codes
  18. 30 days of ideas – 16: Pebble Splash
  19. 30 days of ideas – 17: Digital radio, somewhere useful
  20. 30 days of ideas – 18: Public domain music collection
  21. 30 days of ideas – 19: Blog cast-list automator
  22. 30 days of ideas – 20: The Retirement Pile
  23. 30 days of ideas – 21: Nationalise EMI
  24. 30 days of ideas – 22: The Stainless Steel Rat (the movie)
  25. 30 days of ideas – 23: WordPress Bandcampify template
  26. 30 days of ideas – 24: Rollercoasters as public transport
  27. 30 days of ideas – 25: Next-gen personalised music radio
  28. 30 days of ideas – 26: New Music Trust
  29. 30 days of ideas – 27: Tamagotchi Gardening
  30. 30 days of ideas – 28: Charity shop clothing subscription
  31. 30 days of ideas – 29: ‘Now Playing’ social music app
  32. 30 days of ideas – 30: House of Spare Ideas
  33. Mixtape for You by Ray Kuyvenhoven
  34. What can you do in 30 days?