NBR’s Barry Colman replies

Tonight I appear on Russell Brown’s Media7 as part of a panel with Julie Starr on Murdoch, Google and so on. I’ll post about that soon – it was an interesting and fun first time TV experience.

Yesterday however, Chris Keall and Barry Colman got in touch, and Barry sent me the letter below. It’s also in the comments on the previous post on NBR and Chris has posted it over on his blog.

It’s a great letter – Barry is clearly pushing the boundaries to find the best way to succeed in this market, and credit to him and the NBR team for that. Chris also let me know that Barry sent this speech from News Limited CEO John Hartigan around to the team and stood around to make sure everyone read it.

I agree at least with the core argument of  the speech:

I believe people will pay for content if it is:

  • Original…
  • Exclusive…
  • Has the authority
  • and is relevant to our audiences

I’d personally add that “people will pay” for me means advertisers or readers – and that only some niche sites have the ability to charge readers.

There’s an emerging theory that there is no right answer for the likes of the NBR, or that the right answer may be to constantly change – go free to build traffic, then flip to paid to generate revenue when ad sales fall. Meanwhile  NBR is trying to both free and paid at once – but that 38% drop in total time on site will affect advertisers at some stage.

Dear Lance

It’s always fascinating reading performance, or non-performance, analyses by commentators on your own business. I thought your summary was a pretty balanced one considering the difficulty of trying to assess from the outside what’s really going on at nbr.co.nz when those of us on the inside have been forced to adopt at times the modus operandi of “fire, ready, aim” as per Tom Peters’ classic “In Search of Excellence”.

You were generous in describing our launch as half assed. After making absolutely certain everything would work absolutely flawlessly and stalling and delaying and worrying for as long as possible we took a deep breath and launched the pay wall last July.

Man plans – the gods laugh. What a cock up. What was a simple procedure for those living in cyberspace when it came to paying up to view was a nightmare for many of the senior business executives who rushed to subscribe.

We were flooded with complaints as confused and exasperated businesspeople tried to log on. So much for flawlessness. I don’t know how many people must have given up in frustration. It turned out the flawless plan had not taken into account that the thousands of our existing email subscribers had to “re-join” the service to get behind the pay wall.

How come this little problem escaped our attention? Because the cyberspace boys thought this issue was self evident and obvious. Yeah right.

You get this in the big jobs. I remember the launch of the first issue Property Press in 1978. We thought we knew how to produce the black and white bromides for the hundreds photos of the homes for sale. As it turned out we produced black and black. It was so awful that when the first bundle arrived at the launch function I turned off all the lights. With just the glow of the EXIT lights shining the paper looked magnificent and everyone toasted its success.

I found then, and still do today, that business people are invariably very forgiving when they are supporting a new enterprise. I think they see themselves suffering similar turmoil when starting something new. They seem to know all about Murphy’s Law.

But your review was kind enough to report that we have settled into a modus operandi, “their site design is crisp and easy to use, their reporters are excellent and they are covering great stories.”

The biggest fear for the site was that our traffic would tank and people would turn to the free sites. This was certainly one of the things that kept me awake at 3 am.

It didn’t happen. There has been a reduction but by own measure of uniques we’ve held on to 77% of them. And, more importantly, the quality of current readers constitutes a group of highly paid, highly educated business people. Exactly the sort of audience NBR editorial has traditionally called its own. And our advertisers will pay to reach.

The second biggest fear, advertising volumes would fall if impressions fell back. It didn’t happen either. Since the launch the advertising booking volume has risen by 21 per cent post pay wall

It’s important to note, however, that the volume of web advertising is feeble compared to NBR print. It was failure of site everywhere to achieve decent advertising revenue that convinced us that web readers would have to pay to finance a real newsroom service.

The final and worst fear was that no one would pay. No one ever pays for website news. Everybody knew that.

And NBR’s content would not be good enough. We weren’t the Wall Street Journal the commentators kept reminding us. They were right about that anyway.

But wrong about the willingness of business to pay for good information. It WAS a slow start, not helped by our launch’s woeful execution in the eyes of our non-technie business people who tried to sign up on day one.

But the graph on the paying customers just keeps tracking up on a 45 deg angle. There was no explosion of subscribers. They just started to come on in a steady stream. And the number in the stream is eerily the same each week. It doesn’t jump up and down, good week, bad week. The just keep turning up. And paying up.

So how many have we got?

The number signed up and growing is now at 7500 and growing.

We have sold individual subscriptions and bulk subscription licenses to some of the biggest companies in the country, which enables all their staff on their domain name access the pay wall.

The real access number based on the computer-enabled employees among the corporate subscribers is in the region of 21,000. But the access rights purchased are being heavily used by the senior executives and partners and not the by junior staff which make up the majority of the employees. Hence our internal estimate is 7500.

I don’t want to break down the details of these numbers because we are in a very competitive business. But our corporate clients include some important early adopters including Russell McVeigh, Minter Ellison, Reserve Bank, NZTE, Colliers International, AMP Capital, Commerce Commission, Ernst and Young, Chapman Tripp, AWS Legal, University of Canterbury, NDA Engineering Ltd, Institute of Chartered Accountants, Forsyth Barr.

A point is made that people are not spending much time on the NBR site. I don’t think this is a problem for us. Our senior business executive readers are typically busy people. They come on to check what’s what and leave, unless something pertaining their own company or industry is making the news. They are time poor.

As your report noted, the quality of the writing and the actual website are not in dispute “it’s just a shame that less of us are seeing the content.” I agree, I think the content has been outstanding journalism and far and away better than business fare offered on the mainstream sites. And so it should be. Business reporting is our core business.

Our journalists are now confronted daily with a question that never crossed the mind of journos of my generation when sitting behind a keyboard: Will someone pay to read this? We never had to worry about such stuff. Our papers’ circulation was a given. The readers were given whole pages of stories to choose from. If they didn’t like yours it was tough luck. Today technology lets us know how many impressions were scored on any given story. It’s become a transparent and revealing experience to those working in newsrooms.

Some NBR newspaper readers have complained that they are being charged twice for the same information if they subscribe to the NBR 24/7 site. But the site is a different business entirely because it’s a news service. NBR print is a weekly summary and analysis of the country’s business, financial and political affairs. Our competitors frequently regurgitate their newspaper copy online and people have wrongly assumed we do the same. It’s been very difficult to convince even the most intelligent of them that this is not the case.

Meanwhile we are continuing to add new content features to the site and our print archive is also about to go online to subscribers.

In the end the success of the NBR pay site will depend on the quality of its content. It’s that simple. I believe that business people WILL pay for good quality editorial content. If we fail to maintain and improve the coverage we’re providing to New Zealand business the enterprise will fail. It’s not a matter of cost for our customers. They will gladly part with the petty cash we charge to become subscribers. They won’t pay a cent if they think it’s rubbish.

Did we make the right decision with the paywall launch? I think the jury is still out. We’ve got a lot of customers but we need a lot more. They are continuing to sign up and that’s the best measure we have that we’re on the right track.

My gut feeling is that the site will get better and better and pick up more and more subscribers. But we are not on an ego trip. If it doesn’t work we’ll stop doing it. I’d hate to die wondering whether it would have been a success and there’s only one sure way to find out.

Newspaper Industry “best practice” – laying off journalists, dumbing down the newsrooms and using heaps of dirt cheap overseas cut-and-paste material to fill all the space, is a scenario that I would find profitable. But not satisfying.

Thank you for your ongoing interest in our progress.

Barry Colman

Published by Lance Wiggs


5 replies on “NBR’s Barry Colman replies”

  1. Great to see you’ve drawn attention to Barry’s response. Such transparency and admission of failure is curiously endearing – and very rare from a media mogul (small pond maybe). But it still remains unclear to me (the reader), your view on this debate. You are seldom shy of expressing your opinion, so… where do you stand on all this and how does it impact current and future media business models such as Demand Media and Allaboutthestory?


  2. I worked for Mr Barry Colman for 4 years as the Credit Manager from 1993-1997.
    He is a man of great integrity & enthusium for stories.
    He reports the truth only.
    I can see he is disappointed but congrulate his support
    of his staff.

    Brian Prosser


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