Friday, March 16, 2007

Rattle your dags

This dispatch comes to you fresh from New Zealand, where newspaper publishers have a chance to build formidable franchises on the Internet in a way their American counterparts didn’t have the foresight (or 20/20 hindsight) to do.

If the Kiwi publishers are to succeed, however, they will have to fast-forward their pre-1995 web strategies to suit a post-2007 environment. If they don’t rattle their dags, as the saying goes, someone will rattle their dags for them.

Since I only last week became acquainted with the concept of dag rattling, it is entirely possible that other residents of my native hemisphere might not be familiar with the expression, either. Hence, the following brief digression:

A dag is the slang term in Australia and New Zealand for the dried fecal matter that accumulates in a sheep’s fur in the 12 months between shearings. As the dags get larger, I am reliably informed, they click against one another, making a characteristic sound as the animal trots away. When you want someone to get a move on, you urge him to rattle his dags.

Notwithstanding New Zealand’s boundless and unspoiled natural beauty, superb cuisine, crisp pinot noirs and the charm of an unfailingly hospitable population, the enchantment unfortunately does not extend to a telecommunications infrastructure that is 10 to 20 years behind the times as the result of an incompetent, state-sanctioned telephone monopoly called Telecom Corp. of New Zealand.

One consequence of NZ Telecom’s inadequacy is that Kiwis pay far too much for far too little Internet connectivity. Owing to the high cost and limited availability of DSL in New Zealand, only 37% of Kiwi homes and businesses have broadband Internet connections, as compared with 72% of U.S. homes and even a higher percentage of businesses. (The United States, BTW, isn’t even among the top ten most wired nations in the world.)

Where DSL is available in New Zealand, it costs many times more than you would pay in most U.S. markets. Downloads are strictly limited and violators pay hefty surcharges for their transgressions.

Adding insult to injury, NZ Telecom doesn’t guarantee any particular download speed or, for that matter, whether it can or ever will bring DSL to your neighborhood. We met people who recently got a refund on their DSL deposit, having been told after a yearlong wait that the promised service wouldn’t be available in their neighborhood for the foreseeable future.

In response to the growing frustration of the otherwise genial population, the government of New Zealand has taken initial steps to break up the NZ Telecom monopoly. The phone company responded with uncharacteristic alacrity by offering a plan to open its now-proprietary network to competing service providers. Assuming one or another of these plans progresses apace, YouTube-starved Kiwis some day will enjoy the same cheap and unfettered Internet access to beer-freeze videos now widely available to the rest of the Western world.

Before that happens, newspaper publishers in New Zealand would be well advised to develop more thoughtful and aggressive web businesses than they have to date.

The online fare available from New Zealand’s press, which is reminiscent of U.S. efforts in the mid-1990s, consists of little more than articles recycled from the previous day’s print product. Some papers don’t even bother to mention the URL of their web sites in their print editions.

Web sites like Stuff.Co.NZ, the online presence of the several Fairfax publications in New Zealand, lack many of the popular features that attract and hold online audiences, such as video, podcasts, user-contributed content and personalization tools. Even though search represents 40% of global online revenues, Stuff has a limited search solution that often returns no useful results – and runs none of the keyword ads that have made Google and Yahoo the fearsome competitors they are.

The site of the Otago Daily Times, a family-owned paper in Dunedin that claims to be the oldest newspaper in New Zealand, is even more primitive. It publishes all the day’s news for free but will sell visitors a subscription to view the entire paper in a klunky PDF format for US$170 a year.

With last weekend’s Wellington Dominion Post bulging with 24 solid pages of employment advertising, it is perhaps understandable that its online classified environment carries little more than summaries of its print ads. As U.S. publishers learned to their dismay, this business is extremely vulnerable to low-cost online upstarts. Yet, the Kiwi publishers evidently have taken, at best, baby steps to begin defending and extending this and their other lucrative classified lines. In fairness, Stuff, does have a Craig's List-cum-eBay environment where users can sell cars or spare sheep.

It is only a matter of time until New Zealand’s telecom infrastructure catches up with rest of the wired West. If Kiwi publishers don’t want to suffer the same fate as their struggling American counterparts, they had better rattle their dags.