Dominic Young explores the lessons learned from the NLA and what they mean for the future of news. Dominic’s career has included senior roles at News UK, CEO of the Copyright Hub and Chairmanship of NLA. He is the founder of Stealthy Newco.

Dominic Young explores the lessons learned from the NLA and what they mean for the future of news.
Dominic’s career has included senior roles at News UK, CEO of the Copyright Hub and Chairmanship of NLA.
He is the founder of Stealthy Newco.

Wow. Twenty years. Has it really been that long?

I was involved from the beginning, when the plain Newspaper Licensing Agency (as it was then) was a cheeky upstart. There were a fair few people – then and now – who would have preferred it to go away: after all, it was asking people to pay a fee for something which many of them had (wrongly) always considered to be free.

Time has moved on. The NLA’s existence is no longer questioned or challenged (much) and it provides a service at a level and cost which make its customers, in the main, pretty happy.

But what have we learned from the NLA experience of the last twenty years? The key lessons are about the best way to turn first class content into popular products; the business of converting that popularity into financial returns; and then building a circular mechanism to re-invest those revenues back into more content.

The NLA today shows how that can work. While the revenues and profits of the newspaper industry overall have been falling, the NLA’s revenues, and the royalties it pays publishers and contributors, have been steadily rising.

The content industries generally can learn a thing or two from the story of the NLA.

Lesson 1. Charging for things which seem to be free is really hard.

Before the NLA, people copying cuttings from newspapers usually didn’t pay. They very often didn’t think they needed permission to do it. The idea of paying was most definitely not a popular one. Making that change requires effective communications, sophisticated systems, and – ultimately – enforcement.

Lesson 2. People are however happy to pay for things which are fantastic.

Ten years ago, the NLA launched eClips – a digital database of newspaper clippings. The moment it did this, the NLA went from being just a licensing body, a collector of royalties, to a service provider. What customers can get from eClips is quicker, better, more reliable and higher quality than anything they could get before. The money they hand over isn’t just buying them a bit of paper which says that what they’re doing is legal, it’s buying them a really great service. Customers love the service, and people are prepared to pay for things they love.

Despite all the advances in technology and the sharing economy, content is still worth something. Look at Netflix, Spotify, or the Times. To charge for something, make it worth paying for, make it better than the thing you used to give away – and get the price right.

Lesson 3. Look over the horizon

When the NLA developed and launched eClips, the business plan was a simple proposition: digital cuttings for the market served by the media monitoring sector. What we built it for, however, was a broader, more generic set of capabilities. So now the database and technology serves multiple uses and delivers value in multiple ways, many of which we were able to anticipate right from the start.

For anyone contemplating how the technology and business models of the near future might deliver value for much longer, looking over the horizon is important. Re-imagining your newspaper or magazine to make them exciting and worth paying for is the immediate challenge for many publishers. Working out how they might change and evolve to meet the new incentives and routes to market that might develop should be part of the plan. So lesson 4 applies:

Lesson 4. Don’t stop changing

NLA Media Access has never stopped changing. It went from administering licences to running large scale technical services. It went from representing a small group of national newspapers to representing thousands of local newspapers too, websites as well as print, and now a huge repertoire of magazines.

It has gone from licensing to supporting numerous services right across the industry. It has gone from being a small source of secondary income to being a leading innovator and leader for the whole media sector, and an increasingly important source of revenues for publishers.

For the media – including newspapers – to function well, a relatively simple thing needs to happen. Creative content needs to be turned into products, those products need to find an audience, and their popularity needs to translate into success, including financial return. Finances underpin it all – so creative content can be paid for today and in the future and products and services can continue to be delivered to consumers. Unfortunately, ad-funded newspapers have had their focus blurred by the competing and often opposite needs of their actual readers on the one hand, and the robotic, algorithmic processes which attempt to turn a small part of that popularity into an often pitiful, and consistently elusive, revenue stream.

If the internet has taught us anything it is that change is a permanent state. Staying still or waiting for someone else to create success has not proved to be a winning strategy for those who have pursued it. Any newspaper which doesn’t think of its product in terms of what it delivers for its users, any newspaper which thinks of its product only in terms of its format and its traditional make-up, will fail.

That might sound gloomy. But the good news for newspapers is many of the lessons, and much of the capability, they need is already at the heart of their industry in the story of NLA Media Access.

The first twenty years have been amazing. The second twenty years can be much, much more exciting.

Dominic Young was Chairman of NLA media access between 2006 and 2009. He was instrumental in the concept and delivery of the eClips platform.