Competition, newspapers and webpages: the competition conundrum

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Roy Greenslade has been kind enough to link to this blog for the second week running, this time highlighting yesterday’s post about Clay Shirky and newspaper competition. He makes a point that, while I think is correct, I also think is tangential to the point I was making:

Newspapers have competed with radio and television for more than half a century. Competed for audiences, competed for advertisers and competed in terms of journalistic content, not to mention entertainment.

Well, yes. That’s true. But it only goes so far. In the end, newspapers are also competing with computer games, movies, reading a book, soaking in the bath… Everything is a competition for our time at some point.

I think, however, that Shirky (and, by extension, I) was talking about a much more specific point. When I decide I want to buy a newspaper, it’s a pretty binary decision; I’m either going to buy a newspaper, or not. I can’t ever recall an occasion when I thought “Hmm. Might buy a newspaper. Or maybe I’ll listen to the radio.” The competition does not exist in the consumers’ mind in that way. Once I’ve made the decision to buy a newspaper, then I make the decision which newspaper to buy.

The decision point online is very, very different. When I sit down at my laptop, or fiddle with my iPhone, or pass a commute with my iPad, a newspaper website is no different to any other website. I rarely specifically choose to visit a newspaper website, any more than I chose to visit a blog. I’m not sitting there going “I feel like a blog, what blog should I choose?”. And I’m certainly not going “I fancy visiting a newspaper, which newspaper shall I visit?”. About the only website that I treat as a destination in any way at this point is Facebook – and that’s a testament to how well that network has made itself something of a walled garden. In fact, the majority of my visits to both blogs and newspaper websites is triggered by an external event – an interesting post popping up in my news reader or, in a less of an edge case manner, a link shared by a friend or colleague on Twitter, on Facebook or on our internal Yammer network.

The key point I was trying to make was that the decision point that leads to consumption of online newspaper content is radically, completely different to that of consuming print content.

We still see our content as a structured entity, a collection of pages that are ordered in some way, and which people pick and choose their way through. That is, substantially, a myth. It’s just not how people use the internet, and it’s not how the internet is designed. The power of the link is that, potentially, every page on the internet is adjacent to every other page. It’s built into the very underpinnings of the web. The link laughs at our concepts of site structure.

I was chatting to our metrics expert last week, and she, thankfully, was able to back up with raw data what my understanding of the way the internet works is right: people rarely use website “home pages”. Our obsession with them is a legacy of our “package” thinking from the print era. Online new and opinion content is atomised, and people consume it page by page, not as an entire package. (Task or data-based products are different, and I think people do see them as a whole entity – that’s both why Facebook and our paywalled products work, I think).

So, to expand upon the quote from Shirky that both Greenslade and I were commenting on, it’s not so much that newspapers are competing with other websites online, it’s that every page online competes for our attention with every other page online. And that’s what the industry has to get its head around.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.