by Barbara Quint
No one can deny that these are difficult times for traditional publishers and information services. Competing with voluminous, universally available search services pouring data upon a waiting world at no visible cost — in other words, living in the “Google Age” — leaves services which have to charge to survive struggling. At the same time, trying to charge for content with an end-user market that, in large part, never experienced online before the Web puts the pressure on the content provider to come up with product that consistently and noticeably beats the freebie content every time. That’s a tall, tall order. To satisfy it fully, traditional content providers would probably have to restructure their whole systems, incurring significant, if not massive, cost burdens, and all at a time when their current market hold is decreasing, probably along with their ability to raise capital. In the grip of this challenge and, possibly, clinging to the subconscious, psychological support of the self-inflated ego, many traditionals seem more inclined to simply declare anything they produce, anything bearing their brand, as ipso facto top quality and worth whatever they charge. And, following the internal logic of this semidelusional position, they choose to prove it to those amazingly unobservant end users, unaware of the glory before them, by the most logical approach, to wit, denying them the content until they can learn to show it a proper respect.
When carried to extremes, the whole process can begin to look like a curriculum designed for Lemmings U. In an era when the one universal, first-and-foremost complaint of all information consumers is the issue of overload, an era when people reject the idea of a vacation lasting longer than 7 days because of nightmare visions of digging out from under an avalanche of e-mail messages, an era when not even need or greed can drive people to search one more search engine or even go further than two (three max) pages into Google search results — in this era of answers, answers everywhere drowning questions and questioners, someone wants to hide their data and wait until searchers clamber over hill and dale until they find it. Puh-leez!
And it gets worse. Some producers waver between a pro-Web and anti-Web strategy and come up with a composite business strategy. I’m looking for an analogy here. Zoological ones come to mind. How about “a camel is a horse designed by a committee”? No, that won’t work. After all, despite a somewhat nasty disposition and a distinctly uncomfortable riding surface, a camel can survive in hard places. A camel works. What about a mule? But a mule works too. In fact, it is stronger than the horse, its maternal parent, but no matter how well the hybrid works out, a mule is sterile. It can’t increase its numbers on its own. Sooner or later you’re back working with jackasses.
One classic example of a failure-bound composite business strategy — the me-first one — offers a whole range of mistakes. It wrongly identifies the true competition, attacks allies, diminishes both product quality and brand awareness, and sticks it to end users — all in one fell swoop. For example, this month the Financial Times (FT) will — once again — alter its information flow to its outside carriers. Factiva and LexisNexis, which once operated under a 4-hour embargo delay for Financial Times content — a delay expanded to 12 hours late last year — have to suffer a 24-hour delay.
FT apparently hopes that despondent Factiva and LexisNexis users will migrate to its site, FT.com, where you can get some current content for free and paying can get you more. For example, you can access an FT archive — a rolling 5 years — plus other services for $119 per year or $9.92 a month, while $300 per year or $25 a month will buy all that plus access to 500 World Press Monitor and Archive sources and more. Going to FT’s partner in digitization, ProQuest, may even get you a rolling 10-year FT archive.
Whoopee! Meanwhile, Factiva and LexisNexis offer FT archives reaching back almost a quarter-century (26 for Factiva, 24 for LexisNexis) with full-text collections of other sources numbering over 8,000 (Factiva Publications Library) and 34,000 in LexisNexis. Both Factiva and LexisNexis are busy finding new current business and financial sources to supplement their collections — now more than ever.
So what happens to the user? Both Factiva and LexisNexis have a policy of merging masses of sources into large groupings. It’s highly unlikely that most users will even notice the absence of the most-current FT information. Many times that won’t matter, as some other source will have supplied sufficient information. Sometimes it will matter, because FT will have met time-related user needs before other sources or because FT will have stronger, more informed and informative coverage. Most likely users simply won’t notice. They will think that they have searched FT because they see older FT references in the results. Over time, the breaking-news enthusiasts will simply come to think that FT isn’t a reliable source for the latest information, even in its own areas of focus. (For those not in the business field who don’t know the Financial Times, it amounts to the U.K. equivalent of TheWall Street Journal.)
Whether the marketing strategy works or not, whether the number of subscribers increases on FT.com, the devisers of this strategy have apparently ignored one key factor — a factor, by the way, that the real enemies of all traditionals (Google et al.) hardly ever forget — namely, the interests of the user. This kind of strategy decreases the quality of the content, depriving it of the benefit of full currency. People who use the established outlets for FT will simply not be getting the best FT has to offer, and, depending on which service they are using and which pricing plan, they may not even be getting their money’s worth. Imagine someone having to go back into LexisNexis to check FT a day later under a price-per-search-statement package. But, in any case, it means searchers have to waste their time doing second searches, either a day later on services they know or clicking over to another Web site (FT.com).
Maybe the benefit of gathering more registered users and opening up more advertising revenue opportunities makes the business strategy appealing to FT managers, as it has to other traditional content providers. But I don’t believe that any strategy that disregards the full interests of customers can truly serve the long-term interests of vendors.
Winners think like winners. And, as one big winner is so fond of repeating, “First, do no evil.”
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.