A lot of ink has been spilt over the future of newspapers and the journalism profession. Everyone is decrying the death of newspapers and print media. Some blogs are writing daily obituaries for professional journalists, others are squaring blames. Will the century-old tradition withstand the quick sands of the internet age?
The problems with old media
The key here is of course, as Clay Shirky artfully argued, that the current publishing industry is no longer solving a problem for its consumers. That problem used to be the distribution of complex pieces of information. Now with technology playing its part in leveling the dissemination process, reaching ever-more people at an ever-faster speed, traditional means of news circulation are becoming obsolete. Nothing has worked yet to save the industry because most strategies have been aimed at preserving the industry-that-was.
The web has transformed the way we get information, to the extent where we don’t need to pay for someone to tell us about an earthquake in Italy or the bombing in India anymore. Bloggers, micro-bloggers, and wired services can do more than enough in pushing that information out. Besides, how many times can you spin the same piece of data as is? Then what? The world wants to know the why, what, how behind it. If not, what would differentiate a journalist from just another amateur blogger that can Google and milk a few quotes?
Back to the newspaper business, what’s happening, is the utter transformation and re-organization of both 1) the medium of news reporting, and 2) the way people are re-assessing the value of news. Economically, this spells disaster. This is a situation where the demand of the product is low, while the cost of supplying the product is becoming increasingly unsustainable. When the bill-paying third party disperses, this model inevitably blows up.
Sorting out financing issues
First things first. Newspapers need to get rid of debt. Much of newspaper failures in recent months have to do with bad corporate management. During the run-up to the property bubble, many holding companies piled on an excessive and ridiculous amount of debt, violating the holy tenement of sound strategy that dissuades reckless forays into areas unrelated to its core competency. Since when would newspaper businesses go into property speculation, other than for leasing and tax reasons?
Secondly, there’s the issue of readership and advertising revenue. Anglo-American newspapers have traditionally relied more of its revenue from advertising. That’s an enviable position to be in when times are good. But when economy goes into the reverse, many European publishers now get the last laugh – they can still make money off of its subscription base. Perhaps it’s time to work out a strategy that spread the eggs around the baskets?
Where to go from here
One way to look at the problem is to figure out exactly what the publication wants to be. Clearly, treating the web as another distribution channel does not work.
The Norwegian paper Vendens Gang has found prosperity and fame by operating on a highly interactive level with its users. Digital arm of the paper operates separately from its print parent, with only 5% of duplicate content. This is smart. Because let’s see, do the same version of news need to be regurgitated multiple times through multiple channels? No. Understanding that, successful newspapers spun off their online presence as another facet of its brand.
The issue of integrity has so far barricaded industry elites from thinking outside the box. How does one introduce an alternative revenue model into a business that has for decades, relied on advertising that’s stayed out of its editorials? For obvious reasons, approaches like product placement and paid reporting would destroy reputations faster than you can say show-me-the-money.
European papers manage to somewhat circumvent this problem by making money through a number of sideline ventures. How about selling weight-loss club membership, or live-streaming wildly popular soccer matches? I have even heard suggestions that newspapers run online casinos. So there, Anglo-American capitalism, unleash your magic!
A select number of papers can perhaps leverage their brands by producing more complex and longer forms of reporting. That’s one of the reasons behind success of magazines such as Atlantic and Economist – which are still doing well despite bloodbath in the wider publishing industry. Instead of condensing its writing to appease digital readers with short attention spans, those magazines have carved out a section of their online real estate to blogs that inform, engage and entertain its readers through online media, while maintaining (and protecting) the quality (and length) of its its print content. With a healthy subscriber base and a lively online presence, those magazines can have the best of both worlds.
A multi-media future?
Perhaps the future of newspaper will phase out printed dailies, and re-segment the current publishing industry as we know it. In its place, we will have fast-paced, up-to-date, and opinionated breaking news and analysis from a team of furious beat writers turned professional bloggers that compete with amateur bloggers. The digital platform will be supported by advertising and creative joint ventures with various relevant businesses.
Maybe this form of news/blogging will join force with the still successful cable network TV as well as the rapidly growing news aggregation services to provide on-demand, topic-specific, targeted news reporting, through both print and videos. As leaders in the industry, why not buy up news aggregation services and nurture a community of its own? Why not publish more best-of/popular articles, and photography in books? On the other hand, we will get our in-depth, thoughtful analysis in the form of weekly and monthly magazines (spun-off from newspapers).
People still crave information. People crave quality information. But they are now getting it through different channels. And while this reorganization is taking place, the delicate matter of who is paying for what, is what we are having trouble with at the moment.
By working on more creative news delivery platforms, and exploring alternative revenue models, the future of journalism is brighter, and not dimmer. Delivery methods are varied: by joining force with aggregation services to serve highly targeted and relevant news to its readers; master the use of tags and match them with user preferences; publish topical magazines and books to save readers from news clippings, etc. As to alternative revenue models: try different things. Try what the Norwegians have done, try what the British have done. It’s hard to believe all that American entrepreneurial energy comes up empty when faced with a problem like newspapers.
Picture source: ~scribbleMe
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- Plain Talk on the Future of News (newspaperdeathwatch.com)
- Do you remember newspapers? (johnaugust.com)
- A balanced argument on the future on newspapers (financegeek.com)
- Strengthen Journalism as Newspapers Die (prathambooks.org)
- Clay Shirky: The old model’s broken – don’t try to replace it (blogs.journalism.co.uk)