Jemima Kiss observes Online Publishers' Association delegates trying to get to grips with the future of print and digital publishing, against the backdrop of an industry still looking for both role and revenue models
PowerBooks smell so good when they are hot, and mine's been taking a steamy hammering during the Online Publishers' Association (OPA) conference this week.
There has been a palpable vigour and enthusiasm in the online news industry in the last 18 months. There's sometimes a sense that old-school news execs have finally responded to relentless badgering from their techies and editorial webbies; ultimately spurred on by stagnating - if not plummeting - newspaper sales they reluctantly concede that they need to do this 't'internet thing'.
For others, who took the leap of faith and experimented early on, there's a warm glow of vindication, as well as some exciting and creative innovations in what is (let's face it) the future of the news industry. And those are generally the kind of publishers at the OPA.
There's a few inevitable dull presentations where you feel you're being sold to, and a few others that remind you that public speaking is something that some people just can't do. But the theme was set by Reuters CEO Tom Glocer in his keynote speech - a speech that significantly focused almost entirely on the new power of the user - and that was hammered home by every decent speaker.
Nothing has symbolised the transition of the industry more than Rupert Murdoch's purchase of Intermix and its MySpace network last year. Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, ultimate parent of Times Online, saw enough of the future in this social networking company to pay $580 million for it. As Glocer points out, that's a lot to pay for a company with only $20 million in revenue. But he is buying into a vast, complicated and potentially lucrative network of people and information.
"Murdoch now has access to 54 million users - he has marketing data most of us would kill for and an early warning system of brand choices in the world youth market," said Glocer.
He hit the e-nail on the head by saying that publishers have to build the audience first - the money comes later on. Google, after all, only became profitable in 2001 but news organisations have been understandably reluctant to invest vast amounts in this strange new world that offers so few successful business models. Even news sites with audiences of millions are decidedly cagey about their profitability; the Guardian's website will break even for the first time this financial year, it has confessed.
Said Glocer: "I know it's uncomfortable not knowing where the money will come from, but you have got to experiment and try and do it in a much more open way with the consumer."
The inflexibility of the industry (although, to be fair, this must be true of any big business) was hammered home by venture capitalist Neil Rimer whose company Index Ventures was behind the development of telecomms phenomenon Skype, amongst other things. It's a big tanker problem.
"We have to decide whether to focus on businesses that feed off the decline of newspapers, or whether to invest in businesses that will help incumbents respond to this decline," he said. And no surprise that so far "it has been a better value for money and a better use of our time to focus on the small teams that are feeding off that decline".
Glocer's strategy is for news organisations to continue the role of editing and filtering content, but to provide a much more inclusive, interactive space that forms part of the user's digital world by encouraging them to share, compile and create their own content. This is all part of the two-way model of 'Web 2.0'.
At this point I feel duty bound to mention former dead-tree journalist and uber-blogger Jeff Jarvis, something of a staple at these events. He speaks with the breathless enthusiasm of a true convert, as if he's had an online epiphany at some point. And boy, if you need any convincing about the influence and passion of hardcore bloggers and journalism 2.0, look no further than Jeff.
He was almost furious when discussion moved on to how the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) is hoping to solve the problem of search sites "exploiting" their content. Stuck in the protectionist world of "this is ours - pay if you want it", newspapers say its isn't fair that search sites build their businesses around content they don't pay for. If you think about this for any more than about five seconds, you quickly arrive at the conclusion that it's a mutually beneficial relationship.
Despite a dicky ticker of late, Jeff was characteristically animated when he put WAN MD Ali Rahnema straight: "Search and links are the distribution methods of the future - how is journalism going to be discovered in the future if not through links and search?"
Tellingly, a rather unscientific poll of the 260-strong audience found only two delegates that felt search is a threat to their business. That is a positive sign; there is a much wider willingness to accept and understand the new dynamics and demands of publishing online.
So what did we learn? Have we worked out how to maintain quality journalism without a proven revenue model? How much contribution and comment to invite from readers before it dilutes a brand? How to attract a whole new generation that simply will not buy newspapers, and aren't even likely to follow a news brand online?
There aren't any definite answers, but it's an increasingly vigorous and productive discussion.
Jemima Kiss writes for www.journalism.co.uk.
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