What are the “cheat codes” for the news industry?

 by Martin Belam, 7 May 2012

You’ve probably the missed the recent incredible rise of Dagenham & Redbridge from the obscurity of League Two to competing in the Champions League, but that is no surprise, since it has been confined to my iPad. But it has made me think of an interesting problem for the news industry.

I’ve been playing the manager mode on FIFA 12 and have just started my tenth season in charge of the Daggers. At six minutes per fixture, so far I reckon I’ve clocked up 40 hours of actual matchplay, let alone the time spent preparing the side and delving into the transfer market. It has been thrilling and frustrating in equal measure, and if you spot me lingering on the platform after I’ve got off a tube train, it’ll be because I’m finishing off a vital fixture.

It cost me 69p.

69p that has filled up innumerable commutes and entertained me for months on end - I started playing it in December.

Now compare that to the kind of digital subscriptions news organisations are hoping to levy for commodity news content. As Mathew Ingram wrote last week about ebooks, the end user doesn’t care about the cost of production, the end user cares abut the perceived value they get.

I got my copy of FIFA in a sale in the app store. I’ve got no idea how EA Sports expect to make a return on developing an app and selling for 69p, but I am slightly more minded to experiment with FIFA Street or their Euro2012 game when I run out of steam on this one.

They may also simply see the 69p as a loss-leader for customer acquisition - since the game also has another payment mechanism built into it. If your team is struggling to compete, you spend real cash in exchange for an increase in your team’s virtual budget, allowing you to pay higher salaries and attract a better calibre of player.

Not that long ago unlocking an unlimited budget would have been a “cheat code” - a sequence of characters or controller moves that would reveal additional features or reduce gameplay restriction. Originally built in to aid game testing, cheat codes used to help a whole games sub-industry thrive, as magazine sales were boosted by the fact that they included these secrets, and hardware like the Game Genie came into existence.

As my colleague Alex Graul pointed out in conversation, it was a great day for the games industry when in-app purchase mechanisms effectively allowed them to monetise “cheat codes”.

Which begs the question: Faced with pressure from 69p games making news subscriptions look costly, what are the “cheat codes” that the news industry can monetise?


I have to say, as a big fan of the Guardian iPad app, that I think the answer is probably pretty simple:

* Charge per issue. Subscriptions for news are dead. The £9.99 per month for Guardian iPad is far too much to stomach - I don't read regularly enough. And yet I would happily pay ~£0.79 per issue that I *actually wanted*. This is an impulse buy these days, based on current news content / cover stories / free time to "read the paper". It saddens me that it I have not paid for any Guardian iPad issues as a result of this. I would have paid for several individual ones by now. £9.99 only seems like a good deal if you assume you will read it every day.

* Possibly: make issues free but in-app purchase for the full in-depth reporting. After all its all free on the website anyway, so why not have e.g. the iPad app show synopsis. Each synopsis ends with a "Buy this issue" buttons that will instantly provide the rest.

* Possibly: charge for customised issues. e.g. I am never, ever interested in the sport, but I would like a bit more depth on e.g. environment and politics.

Cheat codes only exist within the game. Outside they don't give you any advantage.

News however, exists in and outside the subscription. I could pay for faster news via text that is targeted to my particular interests - however, news is almost instant these days anyway and anything earth-shatteringly exciting will be on the free sites too, so why pay?

You could restrict access to particular columnists or the crossword.

The problem is that the market is now split - some people only care about news, some care about the journalists and some just want the crossword/recipes/whatever. Previously they had to buy the whole newspaper for the bit they wanted. Now, just like in the music industry, you no longer have to buy the whole album to enjoy the one track you want. So perhaps the answer is subscription for the individual elements rather than the thing as a whole. There will be less subscribers because they are split. News itself becomes less important because you can get most of that for free elsewhere.

Micropayments. I resent buying a physical paper because I've no use for the sports pages, or the celebrity gossip, etc.

I'd envisage a Flattr style system (or just Flattr!) which would allow me to "tip" an an article I've read for free.

I'm sure your page views already tell you which articles are popular - but they don't tell you how worthy or worthwhile they are

Whichever payment system you end up choosing (monthly, daily, something else) - let me express my gratitude to a particular author or article. I don't necessarily expect you to account for it that way - but like the G+ or FaceBook likes, I'd expect it to be publicly recorded.

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