This week in Berlin, niiu has been delivering what it claims to be the world’s first personalised newspaper.
Each weekday, the paper has been delivered to more than a thousand apartments across the city. Wrapped in front and back pages set online by subscribers, its inner pages are taken from several German newspapers and a few international titles (including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and Washington Times). You can see a representative copy here.
Subscribers log on to a site where they can customise the appearance and content of their paper. Here, you can select the make-up of your edition, narrowing or broadening to your tastes, choosing how many pages of each section you would like. This is the paper’s chief virtue, but also one of its downsides. By preselecting the sections of the paper you want, you lose the experience of flicking through an entire newspaper. You can’t stumble across an intriguing story in, say, the business section if you’ve excluded it from your daily dose of news. (No thanks, I’m full.)
But for obsessives of any stripe — cultural, political, financial, sportos — it does allow you to browse, in one spot, various takes on current events. You could load up your paper with nothing but business news. Wall-to-wall stock talk. Endless book reviews.
Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey
Choose what you pay, from $99.
Nothing but Bundesliga fussball speculation. You could also induce daily schizophrenic episodes by including content from across the political spectrum: starting out with a bit of right-wing analysis from the Frankfurt papers, moving through some ponderous centrist news from Der Tagesspiegel and ending up with a blast of unreconstructed left-wing analysis from Neues Deutschland, the former GDR propaganda organ.
This first week is a test run, by the operator’s own admission. It has been free for those who signed up early. The paper is appearing in a barebones format for now, running to a set limit of 16 pages. In the future, people will be able to customise how many pages they receive each day– so those who enjoy wheeling a newspaper to a cafe on a Saturday can get 60 pages then and give their arms a rest with a slim 16-page edition on a Monday.
There have been early problems. My first edition of the paper included very few of the pages I had set highest in my preferences. Many pages were printed in reverse order, giving the strange experience of flicking from the middle pages to the front page. There was no English content at all, suggesting some dire communication problems with The New York Times and others.
This foreign language content is something the young proprietors — largely in their 20s — need to get right. Berlin is practically a bilingual Deutsch-Englisch city, teeming with expats and English-nannied, university-educated Germans who can comfortably navigate their second language. Very few of these people would be stumping up for the pricey daily editions of international papers at newsstands (about three Euros for a copy of the Guardian, for example).
If niiu can get fresh content from those international papers delivered to doors each morning, there would be sizeable potential market. Guardian Weekly subscriptions would nosedive. There is no reason papers from other languages couldn’t also be included — Russian, Italian, Chinese, Turkish.
The entire operation is premised on what the owners perceive as frustration with reading newspapers online. In this sense, they are banking on the appeal of having the broad range of titles you may be used to browsing online, but delivered in one sheet, ready to devour with your meusli, rote grütze und yogurt each morning.
This back-to-paper idea is evident in one of the stranger decisions — to include a suite of blogs from which you may also pluck content. These reprinted stories are what make up the outer wrapper of the paper, thereby giving it a distinctive look — just so you don’t confuse it with the beloved t-ts-and-arse German tabloid.
This is a step that acknowledges the reality of blogs in the everyday reading habits of many devoted newspaper buyers. It also gives the paper an edge beyond mere reproduction of stuff you can already have delivered to your door.
But the inclusion of blogs is muddled in so far as you have to select your blog content from a short list of approved RSS feeds. So even if I wanted to, I couldn’t get Crikey reprinted on the front of my edition. It’s also moving articles to an entirely different form, one for which many of them are not written. Blog posts are often predicated on links to other blogs or news sources; they often are short on immediate info but give the reader a chance to click and do further reading. Reprinting on paper removes the ability to “crabwalk” through news and information, as we do online. The small selection of big name blogs available for reprint on your niiu edition also misses the importance of idiosyncrasy and personality in blog culture, the small and devoted communities that develop.
Presumably those involved are working on a digital version of the paper, prepping it for the inevitable digital reading devices of the future. In that case, the front pages of a digital edition could draw directly from the RSS feed, the inner pages could be flicked as though a newspaper. That’s assuming the old model of page-by-page reading is kept for the digital newspaper, which is far from given … and assumes that people won’t have software to produce their own compilations.
Niiu also presents an unclear set of consequences for actual newspapers, now and into the future. If niiu were to do the impossible and become the biggest selling title in the country, how would this effect the economics and approach of those papers from which they derive content? No doubt the newspapers are seeing some revenue from niiu — publishing hard-arses such as Axel Springer Verlag wouldn’t have their papers involved otherwise — but what effect could this have on the journalists, subbies, section heads of newspapers?
Niiu does reprint the full page from the titles it offers, so this includes the advertisements. But niiu is essentially an aggregating service, taking lessons from the online world to the world of inky fingertips and coffee stains. It is muscling into cut-throat territory. If titles sense a drop in their own readership, I suspect they might quickly pull out their piece of this Jenga puzzle.
Nevertheless, in a market with declining interest in newspaper classifieds, niiu has the advantage of very specific customer data. Flicking through the paper, you have the new and startling experience of advertisements addressing you by name. This could be an attractive option for advertisers, effectively narrowcasting their advertisements to precisely the customers they want to target (politics readers or finance page tragics or motorsport fans). Although this may not be fundamentally different to any number of specialist magazines.
Niiu is an interesting experiment, which will either flounder or flourish in the next year. There is no way to gauge it right now, as the paper is just a bit too erratic to give a true reflection of how it will be as an everyday prospect. It’s easy to imagine further levels of customisation in the future, perhaps even down to the authors one wants to see on, say, the opinion pages.
Whether all this could work in the much smaller Australian media market is an open question, although I suspect it would not. It would need to draw strongly from overseas papers, using to its advantage technology that can immediately transfer entire pages across the web. But there just don’t seem to be the numbers or the population concentration to do this in Australia — distribution points, etc. While an imagined future free of Gerard Henderson articles is a glorious one, it’s hard to know whether it is just a pipe dream. May we hope and pray.