How to save the newspaper industry

It’s not often I say this, but today I’d like to share a business idea with you. And this one’s free.

It’s pretty simple – so simple, in fact, that I can’t for the life of me work out why it hasn’t been done yet.

The short version is this: set up a kind of Spotify for news.

The long version (and don’t worry it’s not much longer) is as follows: the newspaper and written/photographic media industry is in crisis. Papers around the world are slashing costs and laying off staff as it dawns on them both that sales of physical papers and magazines are plunging and that the revenue from advertising is disappointingly low.

In response, the majority of major newspapers, certainly in the UK and the US, have put their products behind paywalls of various degrees of porousness. It makes at least some economic sense – it was clearly a financial disaster to give away all your content for free, as most publications did for the first decade and a half of mainstream internet usage. The hope is that we can return to a world where people take out subscriptions to specific newspapers and read them in isolation.

However, while this makes plenty of sense in a pure fiscal sense, it ignores the real revolution of the internet for news, which was not, in fact, that suddenly Everything Was Free, but that the vertical model of newspapers has, as far as readers are concerned, disintegrated. Consider it: rather as the advent of mp3s has if not killed then seriously wounded the album (since people can buy single tracks rather than entire CDs) readers have realised that they can get different bits of their news from wherever they want. If they like the sports section of The Times, the obituaries of the Telegraph and the features of the Guardian, for instance, then the internet has reminded them that they need not buy the entire newspaper to get at them.

So returning to a world where in order to get the Guardian’s sports one has to subscribe to the Guardian lock-stock-and-barrel is regressive. It will drive new readers even further away from established newspapers or magazines.

One alternative would be to try to induce people to make micro-payments for articles, but experience has shown that while people are willing to pay for a lengthy article (since they regard it as akin to reading a small book) they more reluctant to pay for shorter pieces. As with music, there is plenty of stuff people would happily listen to once or twice but may not want to listen to again – instead they want a permanent repository where they can get all the music they want. Hence Spotify.

So why hasn’t the same model been applied to news? I honestly don’t know the answer, but I’d be very surprised if Amazon or someone else wasn’t already working on it. Consider it: you pay a £10 monthly subscription to Amazon or whoever; you can then request all the articles you want on your Kindle or iPad app, and they, in turn, pay the newspapers a royalty for each article that’s downloaded.

It strikes me that if newspapers and other publishers want to have the best chance of survival, this is the obvious route for them. Clearly it doesn’t answer the broader question about how to compete against amateur bloggers and entirely free internet-only publications like the Huffington Post and Business Insider, but it’s surely a better, less-regressive step than insisting either you buy the whole newspaper/magazine or nothing?

Or am I missing something?