Of Elephants and Field Mice: The Battle over Paid Digital Content Distribution

What happens when you get a former newspaper publisher leading the charge to enable newspapers’ paid digital content efforts in the same room as a top executive of a technology company doing the same thing?

In a classic battle between Old Media and New Media sensibilities, this situation unfolded last week at the paidContent conference held at the New York Times’ EducationCenter.

The result? Some great analogies, a frank, direct offensive by the newspaper guy and a polite, politically correct defensive response from the tech guy.

Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal and co-founder of Journalism Online and its PressPlus system didn’t hold back his criticism of the pricing structures established by Apple and Google.  Of course, PressPlus is a direct competitor of the two giant technology companies.  For an excellent primer of what’s at stake, read Newsonomics Ken Doctor’s recap on the Nieman Journalism site.

Crovitz called Apple (with its 30 percent cut) and Google (with its 10 percent cut) “giant elephants” who are dueling it out and controlling data with their rules and regulations to distribute content on their platforms and through their distribution systems.  Contrasting his company’s product with theirs, Crovitz said that the PressPlus approach allows publishers to own the data and provide consumers access to their brands across all digital channels. The market will naturally move in that direction “if the elephants in the room don’t squash publishers,” Crovitz said.

Jim Gerber, the director of strategic partnerships for Google, took offense at the characterization of being a giant elephant.

“We’re not an elephant,” he said. “We’re not trying to crunch field mice.”

Gerber, who has played a lead role in developing Google’s OnePass (formerly called NewsPass), said that “no one has cracked the code yet” and that there are lots of ways people adopt a product.  OnePass aims to allow access across platforms, Gerber said.  Gerber said that the competition is in its early stages but he classified it as being healthy.  Multiple markets and approaches will help the market evolve so that consumers can buy the products they want and need, Gerber said.

Crovitz belives the key question is whether “the elephants” will permit easy consumer relationships.  Crovitz said that if he watches an HBO show on a Sony television, Sony does not expect HBO to pay them for having the content displayed on their televisions.

Crovitz said the industry is facing an unsure moment but that customers are clamoring for all-access digital models.  The reasons that consumers subscribe to news is not device-specific, Crovitz said, adding that intermediaries should get out of the way and let publishers set their own digital pricing structures.

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