2017 News Keynote by Bernard Hickey

Unpaid Online Publishing Doesn’t Make Sense

Calling himself a heretic, guest speaker and financial commentator Bernard Hickey packed no punches by telling SWUG delegates to value their products, especially newsprint, and to start charging for their online news sites. 

Hickey says he was party to the early digital groupthink that came to the conclusion if they published their printed news content online, advertisers would pay for it. The truth is they didn’t and revenues have subsequently fallen.

“We were wrong and we need to stop.”

The good news is online subscription rates for legitimate news organisations are rising, and trust in “news” shared on forums like Facebook and Google is diminishing. Charging for good quality news is paying off, he told delegates.

His “good news vs bad news” presentation outlined the pressures legitimate newspapers and news organisations faced in the light of the current digital age.

He told them valuing print was important because it added to its legitimacy.

“If you pay nothing, you get nothing of value is the thought.”

Newspapers should be looking at charging online subscriptions and developing relationships with their readers so they trust and value them.

In 1991, long before the Facebook revolution, he worked for Reuters, one of the first digital news services, he says.

News was distributed electronically on small Reuter’s screens owned by currency traders all over the world, who were paying thousands of pounds for the service “so we’ve been publishing electronically for a long time and were being paid for it.”

“Publishing online and not being paid for it doesn’t make sense.”

He added that the underlying message from New Zealand’s newspaper executives was that it’s just a matter of time before they stop publishing newspapers; that there is no longer any need for dailies.

“The whole feeling around newspapers is that they are dying. But companies should embrace their readers digitally and in print, because print advertising is way more effective.”

In terms of reader recall, research showed that newspapers (in print) enjoyed a 75% recall rate while digital had only a 44% rate.

“We need to fight to retain readers and advertisers and build relationships with them. Publishing online for free has been a huge mistake for newspaper companies for us and for democracy.”

It has meant fewer journalists, less coverage of important community services like local councils and courts and high value news areas like business and politics.

“Fewer journalists means we end up with a higher sugar content than protein, what I call non-stories.”

Outlining what he called “the Facebook effect” on the news industry, Hickey says that thankfully people are now looking to a more trusted media. At the same time, Facebook statistics in this country alone are sobering.

There are 2.9m active New Zealand users and 2.3m New Zealander’s use Facebook every day, up to 14 times a day. People spend up to 50 minutes on average on it, and 64% use it for news. Of those 60% of media posts are shared without reading them. And the human attention span for this medium is down from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2016.

He says Trump used Facebook very effectively
to win the election by targeting individuals’ newsfeeds with multiple message variations to sow confusion and create messages in filtered bubbles. He spent 95% of his campaign budget targeting 14 million people within just eight states.

“Facebook has changed the world because
we live in a bubble of fake news; there’s a loss of shared facts and splintered, filtered news sources. The Facebook newsfeed is all about the dopamine rush when we like, share and flick.”