John

The Ever-Changing Newspaper: Some Hope In Dark Times Ahead

In News, Online on November 21, 2008 at 8:50 pm

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(Pic from sxc.hu)

Ever so often when I go to the Guardian’s Media section, it used to be that I’d always first click onto the Press and Publishing section. It was, after all, directly related to the industry I was in–magazine publishing. It also had some great advice columns by David Hepworth and Dylan Jones, but over the past couple of years, there’s been little to cheer me up in that section.

Every other week in that section seems to be another towards Doomsday, more Eeyore moans about job cuts, sharply declining revenues, newspapers closing down, circulation figures dropping in ridiculous rates. (These days, for my own sanity, I first click around the Digital Media section) 

This week in the Media section featured a couple of postings that I think hints towards the future of newspapers and journalism. First, the bad news: It looks like the recession will hit the UK newspaper industry very badly, with ad revenues ‘will fall by 21% in 2009’, according to reports.

The UK newspaper industry, already reeling from the economic downturn, is heading for an even grimmer 2009 with advertising revenues forecast to fall by 21% next year, according to a report.

These figures reflect the “dramatic downgrading of the state of the UK economy in recent weeks and days, ending talk of a shallow and short recession”, the report stated.

The UK print ad market will be the worst hit of all media sectors in 2009, down 21%, with newspaper display ads down 22% and classifieds down about 19%, according to Enders Analysis. Growth will not return to the print ad market until some time after 2013.

Make no bones about it–if the UK print industry is a yardstick to go by, we’re talking about a five-year setback for the print ad market, and during that time you can expect more layoffs, more  papers closing down, etc. etc. Those predictions have long been the rhetoric chanted by digital media advocates all too eager to write out the newspaper’s obituary. 

Just earlier this week, however, Rupert Murdoch came out to rally the newspaper troops in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation by saying ‘hey, hold the presses! We ain’t dead yet!”. I’m with him on that: anyone getting some sorta kick from touting the death of a medium doesn’t get the big picture. 

“Among our journalistic friends are some misguided cynics who are too busy writing their own obituary to be excited by the opportunity,” Murdoch said in a radio address (that was written about here) ” Unlike the doom and gloomers, I believe that newspapers will reach new heights in the 21st century,” he added. 

It may seem rather cuckoo for a man thinking that the newspaper will “reach new heights” in these depressing times, but what we should note here is that Murdoch isn’t specifically talking about paper, but news: “Our real business isn’t printing on dead trees. It’s giving our readers great journalism and great judgment,” says Murdoch. “In this coming century, the form of delivery may change, but the potential audience for our content will multiply many times over.” 

The problem for many newspapers and print journalists is that they think of news in the confines of paper. With that in mind, it’s great to see that Link Journalism–once such a taboo subject for newspaper websites–is slowly being adopted and practiced by newspapers such as The Washington Post, which launched its link blog, the Political Browser, to the applause of many. Finally, the collective sigh came, there’s an editor paying attention. 

Fundamentally, it’s nothing new–in fact, putting in links in a post is what blogging is at the root. But for newspapers, it’s a groundbreaking move that shows that mainstream media listening to what their readers want, and are willing to try something new–screw it if they run the risk of directing readers to other sites.

The paranoid notion of losing readers’ attention to competitors’ websites, however, is unfounded. Scott Karp, in Publishing 2.0, wrote up the extraordinary case of an article for GoVolsXtra, Knoxnews.com’s sports vertical site for the Tennessee Vols. In it, he writes that the page “accounted for 6% of ALL Knoxnews and GoVolXtra article page views for the last two weeks, and as much as 14% of all article page views one of the days since it was first published.”

And what is that page consists of? You got it. Nothing but links on one subject, links that are constantly updated, and because of that readers kept coming back to this page to find out more about their team, rather than scour around the Web and messily search through Google. Here’s an excerpt of Karp’s story:

Most news sites don’t do aggregation, they don’t help their readers find the best content on the topics that interest them. So when they start doing so, it may take readers a while to discover this new dimension of news value.

But once they do, there’s a good chance that they are going to love it. Just like web users have been deeply engaged with news aggregation for years.

The last sentence, of course, is a classic case of “hey, idiot! That’s what we’ve been doing all along! Glad to see you come to the 21st century!”

So while there is a lot of gloom ahead for the newspaper industry, there’s a lot going for it at the same time. Thanks to the likes of Rupert Murdoch, GoVolXtra, and The Washington Post, attitudes are changing; newspapers are being focusing to what really matters: Delivering news and information to the reader.

That’s how a paper keeps relevant, in making the reader come first instead of the paper on which news is printed on. And by 2013, who knows what kind of newspaper institution we could be looking at? Like Murdoch, I’m very excited indeed to see what comes out five years from now.

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