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Is access better than ownership for newspapers?


Is renting better than owning? And could leasing be a new business model for newspapers?

A consumer behaviour report from international futurists,, got me thinking about whether a model that works for real estate could have merit as an alternative revenue source for newspaper companies.

The report this month was on (Re)commerce — looking at the emerging trend of letting people recycle past purchases by returning them to receive a discount, or value add, attached to their next purchase. What struck me as genuinely intriguing about the idea is the extraordinary number of clever brands now using the concept successfully to recycle everything from mobile phones to jeans and cars.

Let’s face it, recycling newspapers is as old as, well the Gothenburg Press. And no one is suggesting that marketing nirvana is to be found by encouraging people to lug around an old broadsheet all day in the hope of getting a whopping 50 cents back. But it got me thinking about just how comfortable newspapers are with re-use — we use readership figures that boast more than one reader per copy religiously. So rather than literally giving back money to a single user, would we not be better to find a business model that recognises our readers’ current behaviour and how that is adapting and changing and charging accordingly? And doesn’t this model exist already and is known as renting or leasing? Hmmm. I smell a wheel.

At the risk of outing myself as being a tragic with no life, I’ve been obsessing about finding the holy grail of an alternative revenue stream for newspapers ever since blogging about it nine months ago. Back then I wondered if we could create a viable business-to-business model that recognised that while the white noise of the 24-hour news cycle is cheap, unique and agenda-setting quality journalism is scarce.

Then there was a second report on the Web site that has made me think I am onto something. In its 11 Crucial Trends for 2011, trend 11 is called Owner-less, recognising the new social rejection of ownership with its implications of responsibility, cost and commitment.

“For consumers, the appeal of being owner-less is obvious,” says the report. “Owning bulky, irregularly used items is both expensive and unsustainable, especially in dense urban environments where space is at a premium. With more consumers having mobile access to online systems, it becomes easier to access items whenever and wherever they are needed.”

Despite the decades of denial by executives about our products, we need to fess up and recognise that newspapers are bulky and no matter how good we are at recycling, there is always that sense of guilt that “a tree died” to give us our daily fix.

But what if we embraced the ownerless idea and increased our per-copy price dramatically and encouraged readers to pass it? We could encourage this by making a donation for each copy that was re-used to go to environmental charities by scanning a barcode into their phones — and then we’d have a record of exactly how much sharing was going on. Should we charge more for cafes and coffee shops — where papers are regularly shared — as part of business subscriptions? Should B2B sales recognise user volume? Especially to other media organisations who we know will reuse our unique content in their own bulletins? Perhaps this really is just a paywall plan — except that we’re no longer trying to justify ownership.

If you think it’s a stupid idea, think about the rise of free bike shares in cities such as Barcelona, Paris and even Adelaide (and even soon in New York). Then there is the rise of car sharing, luxury hand bag rentals … the list goes on.

Trendwatching argues that “another big boost for the Owner-less economy is that with so many highly visible initiatives, all consumers are becoming used to seeing schemes in action, and more and more are feeling comfortable with the idea of sharing and renting large, expensive or often-idle objects.”

Consumers, the report argues, are looking for convenience and collecting as many experiences as possible and “fractional ownership and leasing lifestyle businesses offer the possibility of perpetual upgrades to the latest and greatest, the ability to maximize the number and variety of experiences, and allow consumers to access otherwise out-of-reach luxuries.”

If we stop insisting that people “buy” and “own” a copy of the newspaper, but instead encourage them to “rent” or “lease” the experience of content either in print, online, mobile or whatever comes next, we can break down one of the largest and thickest silo walls that separates us from our digital competition — our obsession with control and ownership. Instead we need to move our business models and marketing towards a focus on maximising fleet and flexible access and opportunity without guilt, commitment or obligation.

I’d sign up to that.

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