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The Future of Newspapers September 22, 2009

Posted by msherfield in Uncategorized.

With 2009 bringing no relief to the crumbling foundations of the 20th century’s venerable news institutions, now is the time to look to the future of this troubled yet vital industry. As has been the case for most of this decade, more questions than answers swirl around the future of newspapers and the old guard of news organizations in general. So with that in mind, we proceed with some of the most pressing questions: is there a future for news as we know it and what will it look like?

The first thing to point out is that news is growing. As Michael Massing points out, the audience’s use for news, especially through the internet, could be at an all-time high. Yet paradoxically, the revenue these new page views are gathering is crashing toward an all-time low. The industry is in the throes of a revolution.

So what will the other side look like when and if our current institutions survive the change? A lucid enunciation of the future news model comes from Paul Bradshaw, who expands on the possibilities the internet offers. They come down to two key ideas that differ from its print predecessor: speed and depth.


Bradshaw's new vision of a 21st century news model

These concepts are paradoxical yet logical, showing the power of the internet as a news medium. Speed is self-evident, with the most striking example coming in the form of Twitter during such events as the Iran Election and natural disasters like hurricane Ike. The mobile web offers a new platform for news that is up to the minute, rewarding those who get it first.

That’s followed by depth. With no deadlines or inch counts, the web offers journalists a unique opportunity to cover a subject the way they’ve always wanted to, showing every possible angle. This bleeds into the realm of hyperlocal news, giving the audience information it wants and can use in its immediate, every-day life, which has begun to flourish under this new opportunity.

The message then seems to be clear. The new model is one which will take advantage of the new possibilities unleashed by the web, based first on speed in reporting than on building the depth of a story.

But how do you get paid for it? While small start ups have been able to survive and thrive off donations, limited ad revenue, charity and foundational support, what about those too big to reinvent themselves? The biggest crunch has been felt in the large metro papers with exactly this problem. Papers like the Miami Herald and Baltimore Sun that are too big to survive off low yield internet ads and donations are caught in between two conflicting models.

That has raised the specter of pay-walls soon to be erected around information that was once free. As far as desperate moves go, pay-walls are logical. After all, people pay for the same information in print form, why not charge for online content?

However, the numbers show this mode is unlikely to succeed. As Massing points out (same link as above), people spend 96 percent of their time with a newspaper in the print form, only 3 percent online. People are willing to pay to hold a newspaper in their hands, but unless you have something special, they won’t pay to read online.

That brings us to content. What role does the content itself play in the value of a newspaper. Maybe surprisingly, Paul Graham says: very little. The value is derived from the medium, not the message, which is universally bad news for the online pay wall, unless you happen to be the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times.

Not even the most respected name in American journalism, The New York Times, could make its TimesSelect pay wall fly, although there are murmurs it could be coming back in some fashion.

As Lionel Barber, the Financial Times’ editor said:

The prerequisite for establishing a pay-for-content model is good content—must-read content. It’s extremely important in the modern news business to be clear on what your comparative advantage is. If you want to be everything to everybody and spread your resources too thin, you’re going to get into trouble.

Which brings up, in my opinion, the only truly viable, or at least the most promising model, for new media going forward: cooperation and nonprofits. With plenty of budding success stories like Voice of San Diego, the small, hyperlocal organizations that embrace the internet for its reporting advantages of speed, depth and context while eschewing the profit-mad flaws of large corporations hold the future of journalism as we know it in their hands. The era of specialization and flexibility is upon us. Instead of staffs that are hundreds strong producing and dictating the news, journalism will move toward smaller, more nimble staffs that fill many rolls, while relying on the audience itself to steer the ship of news in the direction they want to take it.



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