The newspaper’s Achilles heel

Newspaper mogul Christian van Thillo (De Persgroep) embraces digital. But that’s not enough, argues Wouter Boon.

Last week I visited the 24Festival, and with much interest listened to the keynote of Christian van Thillo, CEO of De Persgroep, owner of most newspapers in the Netherlands. The sympathetic Belgian was to answer the question how his newspapers can survive in a world infested with digital news and content. It’s a question that already fascinates me for a while, but one that is hard to answer.

Even the New York Times, a journalistic institute with a much larger audience, seemed to have more questions than answers in its leaked Innovation Report. Though The Times has seen an increase of digital subscriptions over the past years (just like De Persgroep), it is facing a constant decline in readership.

Van Thillo however sounded optimistic – as a CEO should. And fortunately he could back his optimism with numbers. On a daily basis his newspaper titles receive 3.8 million daily unique visitors – almost 23% of the Dutch population – who spend an average of 18 minutes of their attention. Quite an impressive base.

At the same time Van Thillo quite honestly shared his doubts. He fully acknowledged that tech companies have increased the competition and deflated the price of news. ‘Quick news’ is even completely free. “How can we win the match against Google and Facebook?” Van Thillo wondered out loud. Or against Blendle (read: iTunes for news), allowing you to leave through several newspapers and magazines and only pay what you consume.

I personally love Blendle – as more or less predicted in my column “I will only subscribe to Spotified content” – cause it allows me to only read the articles that really interest me – regardless the title that produces them.

Van Thillo’s solution to the cheap abundance is to “fully embrace” digital. Which means changing cost and advertising structures, using big data to better understand the readers’ behaviour and optimise the newspapers’ touchpoints accordingly. De Persgroep will also offer more local news and thus use the possibilities of SoLoMo (social-local-mobile), educate journalists and heavily invest in video – to serve the different channels.

Then, of course, there’s still the art of making a newspaper. Even though running a newspaper becomes more and more a technological “left brain” activity, Van Thillo argued that it is still the “right brain” (read: creative brain) that produces qualitative journalism. Just as the New York Times, Van Thillo believes there will always be readers who appreciate qualitative journalism.

I believe so too. But that’s not enough. The biggest problem for newspapers is that they package random news and thus aren’t satisfying a specific interest. Unless, of course, you’re interested in being surprised. But Facebook and Twitter also surprise you with random news. The difference though is that they use the social recommendation, which is an important factor in allocating attention to content. Blendle has also included the social link, but more importantly allows you to search within certain areas of content. And Google, as we all know by now, allows you to search for extremely specific content.

In my view the Achilles heel of newspapers is that they are too generic. Cause digital is not just the language of free it is also the language of being able to find exactly the kind of content that matches your taste. In other words, the democratization of information asks for more specialists and less generalists.

A first step in addressing this problem is that the brand new digital de Volkskrant (one of De Persgroep’s titles) is customizable to your taste and more social than ever. This helps, but it will never make De Volkskrant a specialist in specific content, such as politics, culture or the economy. By wanting to bring it all, De Volkskrant ‘merely’ remains a specialist in qualitative journalism.

The big advantage of being a real specialist – such as The Financial Times – is that you can focus your content on a much more homogenous target group and produce content (and even products) that all your readers will appreciate. So, paradoxically, the key to survival for newspapers is to narrow down both target and content. Which means that in my opinion De Persgroep should look at its different titles more and more as a brand portfolio – in a similar way publishers owning different magazines do. It’s the only way newspapers will be loved for their content like true brands are.