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Friday, January 25, 2008

The case for pick-and-mix newspapers

The other day a friend said: I'd subscribe to the paper if I could just have the bits that I want. I don't want the business section or the sport section or the careers section, just the news section and magazines.

She doesn't like watching unread papers go straight into her groaning recycling bin. Me, I've no time for the magazines and would be happy with News, Business and a Technology section if there was one. You might well opt for News, Sport and nothing else, or just Sport.

This is, of course, exactly what we are able to do online by using an RSS aggregator or customisable homepage.

But what if newspapers could do it too? What if they could nail a way to distribute different configurations of their sections - perhaps a set number of options: the full edition, business edition, lifestyle edition or sport edition, say - and only make them available to subscribers. I don't know enough about print configurations or distribution channels to know if this is at all possible. Any thoughts?

It came to mind when I was re-reading a post from John Duncan, a former managing editor of the Observer and now an international newspaper consultant. Mr Duncan, who is unconvinced that the economics of online newspaper publishing stack up, says this: "The effort expended on making newspaper websites passably useful online would be far better spent on making newspapers more competitive and useful in print.

"More flexible distribution would be a start, so we could offer a different product to different people and get it to them when they want to read it. Better products help too. The Observer sells more copies now than it did in 1995 thanks to the past seven years of product innovation."

His post has been kicking around for a while but is worth a read. If you're a digital skeptic it will make your day. He's done some fairly comprehensive comparative maths on the Guardian online vs print and come up with the following: "Even after 10 years of spectacular growth, with broadband penetration now high and newspapers said to be in danger of total irrelevance, The Guardian is still read by vastly more people in the UK than Guardian Unlimited."