Twitter, newspapers + new media: Some observations


This post by Liberal MP and former Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull was first published on his blog and is reproduced here with the permission of his office.

opinion Have just got back to the office from The Australian’s new media breakfast and given the wide range of views, questions about the iPad in the discussion I thought I would see how the iPad worked for doing a blog on the topic.

I am using the WordPress app, and so far it seems to be working fine — havent had any success accessing WordPress for my website via Safari on the iPad, so the app seems essential.

Anyway, the discussion at the breakfast which was kicked off by Richard Freudenstein who is CEO of The Australian focussed on the iPad and similar tablet devices and what they meant for newspapers. In particular, would people be prepared to pay for content on the iPad when they have not been prepared to do so on the Web.

Here are some observations which broadly summarise what I said at the breakfast.

1. The question of “will newspapers survive?” is really the wrong question. Nobody imagines that we will get to a point anytime soon when there are no newspapers at all. But the fact is that the news media landscape has become vastly more competitive than could have been imagined a generation ago and as a consequence the profitability of newspapers is under siege. A good if gloomy metric to contemplate is the share price of John Fairfax Group. It is about where it was in early 1992.

2. There are some categories of advertising which are much more amenable to the functionality of the Internet than to hard copy. Employment ads, most classifieds and increasingly real estate are good example. To date display advertising has remained more attractive in hard copy (especially magazines) but the iPad-type format has changed that. Display ads on the iPad are more compelling than even the glossiest magazine.

3. There is so much free content on the Internet, in particular free news content, that newspapers will struggle to generate online circulation revenues that match their old hardcopy circulation revenues. Because we have all been used to paying for financial news content, specialist journals like the FT or the WSJ have a big advantage.

The jury is out as to whether enough people will pay enough money for online content from a general newspaper when there is so much free news content available. Put another way, how many people will pay to read The Times and Sunday Times (of London) online when they can access all the other UK newspapers online for free. Time(s) will tell.

4. Web browsing on the iPad is very good, I find. So while I think The Australian’s iPad app is terrific and is a better browsing experience than its website, it is not dramatically better and so the premium I would pay for the iPad app is not going to be very large if the website remains free (which it probably won’t). Clearly if there is more content on the newspaper’s free website than on its pay iPad app, there isn’t any good reason (other than curiosity) to buy the app.

5. The big question which was canvassed at the breakfast this morning was whether and to what extent the big news brands, News Ltd, Fairfax, ABC etc, would continue to dominate news coverage. Everyone on the panel (especially those from News Ltd) thought they would. Maybe. I am not so sure. The ability of new brands to break into Internet categories disruptively has been proven again and again. Yahoo looked pretty dominant before Google didn’t it?

But again the big question is this: will the established brands remain dominant sources of online news IF they put up pay walls and others do not? I observed this morning that this reminded me a little of the argument being put fifteen years ago or so by people like AOL in favour of “walled gardens” where people were (apparently) going to prefer to access all their content within the confines of a particular portal. What is most amazing is not that companies peddled this line, but that so many people believed it.

Invariably people will seek greater choice, greater freedom. Thats human nature. As to the economics that line of Murdoch’s I quote so often comes back to me: “The Internet will destroy more profitable businesses than it will create.”

6. The role of online media and the election was discussed. Here it is pretty straightforward I believe. Politicians and political parties are in the business of communication which means they need to use every means of communication available to them. The social media in particular enable politicians to communicate directly with the electorate without being edited or filtered by the traditional news media.

7. Another topic touched on was the use of iPads/tablets for education. Here I think it is fairly clear. A textbook on a tablet has so much more functionality than a hardcopy textbook — the advantage is obvious. It seems a no-brainer to me that once tablets are more affordable they will increasingly become a medium by which we will view more and more content which we traditionally read on paper and that will include students as well.

Personally one of the best things about my iPad is the way in which it presents not just books but all documents. You have the same ease of page-turning like access with better graphics, ability to zoom in or out and so on. I don’t think I will be reading any more committee reports in hardcopy.

8. In terms of the evolution of the media, a generation ago there were a limited number of windows (media) through which the public could receive content. The providers of the content (writers, producers, actors, publishers) were at a disadvantage relative to the owners of the windows (newspaper proprietors, television proprietors etc).

Now however there is an almost infinte range of windows and the Internet and social media offer the theoretical potential at least for everyone to publish to the widest possible audience. So inevitably it seems to me that greater leverage is now with the content creation side of the media business. Logically that would mean journalists and writers will do better in an online world — but if so much content is free will they be able to capitalise on that change of leverage?

That about covers this morning I believe. The advent of the iPad begins a new era of tablet devices. Inevitably they will soon have functionality currently denied to the iPad by Apple — telephony, the full range of computing functions and so on. And as we have seen with so many other devices this will all drive the demand for more and more wireless broadband, a point Senator Conroy seems to have missed.

Final observation: The winners online will not be those with the best technology, but with the best technological imagination. Very little that has happened online in the last ten years would have been predicted ten years before, so be bold and dream big dreams. They are more likely to be realised than you think.

Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull


  1. What a great piece. How the Liberal party could have dropped such a switched on progressive intellectual in favour of the current Luddite ape amazes me.

    • Check out the polls (both two party preferred and preferred prime minister) now and compare them to when Turnbull was leading the party.
      Party can’t be that ignorant of how to win an election at least.
      Just sayin’… ;)

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