Events, my dear newspapers, events will never be the bread and butter

Interesting column by Simon Jenkins in today’s Guardian, in which he argues that newspapers should learn from the music industry in turning their attention to live events:

The key must be to learn the lesson of the most tightly competitive medium of all: popular music. It has cast off its enslavement to recording studios and recast itself, almost in Victorian mode, as a mass movement for live audiences. Music online is all but free. Live costs a fortune… Newspapers should not be investing in fancy printing presses but in the “long-tail” economics of live enterprise, with the printed word as a mere core activity.

It’s a model being tried elsewhere. As I tweeted a month ago, the web is becoming a bit like music industry… live events are increasingly profitable, but the subject matter isn’t. Have a look at Twitter right now… someone you follow will be probably be tweeting from a web event somewhere, accompanied, of course, with the customary hashtag. Indeed, as Robert Scoble mentioned in a recent panel, the biggest of the tech blogs, TechCrunch “makes the majority of its money from charging admission to its conferences.”

And yes, this model can apply to any publishing business that is finding its primary revenue stream – ads – declining; a pain the newspaper industry is feeling very sharply. So, Jenkins hypothesises, newspapers could become a “club”:

Whatever the point of entry, somewhere behind a paywall [is] a beckoning club, privileged access not just to news and comment but to a galaxy of media brands, events, concerts, courses, seminars, conferences, tours and related discounts and dating agencies. To pay [is] not to read, it [is]to join.

The problem with the events “club”

1) Events stop being interesting. Yes, live music is booming at the moment, but this won’t last forever. It could well be just another fad. And to base a long-term business model on a fad is a very dodgy premise. I might go to see a band I like a couple of times, but I probably wouldn’t want to see them every month.

2) Reimagining a newspaper as a club is a dangerously presumptuous idea. In an age where nothing is scarce, surely newspapers can’t count on the loyalty of their readership? Especially a readership that is skewed to one side of the political spectrum – a position that most newspapers inhabit. The target audience is relatively small. And the groupies – the one who would buy a t-shirt, and a poster, and come to every gig – are an even smaller subset. Mass market it aint.

3) If events (and indeed dating sites, holiday clubs, book groups etc.) become the main breadwinner, then the news becomes the loss leader. As discussed previously, a good loss leader is cheap and efficient. If the quality of the news and opinion drops, and readers start noticing regurgitated press releases in the place of well-researched journalism, the brand will suffer. And no-one will buy tickets to see a band that isn’t cool anymore.

In short, events will plug a hole. While the ads aren’t paying, sure, plan an event every week. But in the long term they’ll never suffice as a newspaper’s bread and butter.

***p.s. the title of this post is a tenuous reference to a famous Harold Macmillan quote. When asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, Macmillan replied: ‘Events, my dear boy, events’***

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Related posts:
The future of journalism, and why Beauty is still searching for a new Beast
Journalistic Pace, and why quick and slow aren’t mutually exclusive
How Big Broadsheet should deal with Big Blog: The ground rules
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5 responses to “Events, my dear newspapers, events will never be the bread and butter

  1. Pingback: Why membership is an old media solution to a new media problem « Benji's Blog

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