Do newspapers have a future?

Edward Willett @ 18-03-2009

Illustrated_London_News_-_front_page_-_first_edition Newspapers are struggling everywhere; there have been a few posts on the subject here at Futurismic already. In Denver, the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News recently ceased publication. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has gone to an online-only version. And here in Canada, Canwest, which owns 13 daily and 26 community newspapers across the country, is so strapped for cash it’s ordered my own local newspaper, the Regina LeaderPost, to cut back on the work it doles out to freelancers. I should know, since my weekly science column, for which I was paid a paltry $25 a week, has been axed. Apparently the $1,300 a year that had been coming to me will make all the difference in stemming the tide of red ink. (I’m still writing the weekly column, by the way; it clings to life in a couple of smaller papers and you can read it on my blog or get it sent to you via email, if you’re interested.)

According to science writer Steven Johnson, however, speaking at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, the lingering death-throes of newspapers will not spell the end of journalism. (Via PhysOrg.) Instead:

Steven Johnson equated newspapers to old growth forests, saying that under the canopy of that aged ecosystem blogging, citizen journalism, Twittering and other Internet-age information sharing is taking root.

“I’m bullish on the future of news,” Johnson said.

“I am not bullish on what is happening in the newspaper industry; it is ugly and it is going to get uglier. Great journalists are going to lose their jobs and cities are going to lose their newspapers.”

Johnson says the problem is that changes that should have happened over a decade are being crammed into a much shorter time frame, partly due to pressure for the global economic situation.  Johnson says the solution is to “stop killing trees” and “stop wasting information freely available online,” adding that “The business model sure seems easier to support if the printing goes away.” (Remember: it would be cheaper for the New York Times to give each of its subscribers a Kindle than to print the newspaper.) 

Johnson sees a future in which news weaves together the talents of professional journalists, bloggers, Facebookers and Twitterers. According to Johnson, the information mix will include direct online streams “such as webcasts from high-profile people such as US President Barack Obama.” (Forget webcasts, actually. Sounds like all you really need to do is hook his teleprompter up to stream his speeches in real-time to the ‘Net.)

Appropriately, Johnson has posted his entire speech on the topic to his own site.

International Data Group (IDG) chairman Patrick McGovern agrees; his company, which operated in 95 countries, owns some 450 publications, including PC World and InfoWorld, and many of them are only available online. “Print editions are yesterday’s news,” he says. “If it is news, people want to hear it as soon as they can.”

McGovern’s solution for newspapers? Drop print, and start on digging out hot local topics readers can’t find elsewhere:

“Find out the scandal in the mayor’s office; what the police are up to, and those other things that people love to talk about,” McGovern said. “It is easier and much less costly to put it online.”

McGovern believes people will pay monthly subscriptions for online newspapers that follow this model.

I’m a journalist by training and a former reporter, editor, photographer and cartoonist for a weekly newspaper. I’ve always loved newspapers. I don’t care about the medium of delivery; I just want them to survive. But I’m not sanguine about the willingness of readers to ante up, even for local content. Nor am I confident the people running the newspapers yet grasp that local dailies no longer need to cover national and international news to the extent they once did, and that their core product, their “killer app,” is local content.

The end of my newspaper column in Regina after almost two decades is proof enough of that.

Um, not that I’m bitter or anything.

(Image: FIrst edition of the Illustrated London News, May 14, 1842, via Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]news, journalism, newspapers, media, Web[/tags]


Escaping the downward spiral of newspapers

Paul Raven @ 13-03-2009

printing pressYou know what they say about rats leaving sinking ships… but then again, you know what they say about rats being survivors. The sinking ship of newspapers is seeing a few of her passengers make a beeline for the portholes; now The Guardian has followed the lead of the New York Times and is opening itself up to the web with APIs rather than shutting the doors. [image by Baltimore City Paper, ironically enough]

As TechDirt points out, many Guardian staff are quite keen for competitors like the NYT to (as they keep threatening) start charging for access to content – because it would hand Teh Grauniad a naked advantage for no effort on their part.

That said, the NYT isn’t sitting on its hands:

“Paper is dying, but it’s just a device,” Bilton told Wired.com […] “Replacing it with pixels is a better experience.”

Bilton, a youthful technologist who programs mashups in his free time, is charged with inventing the future for the Gray Lady in an era of troubled times for newspapers. Fewer people are subscribing, classified ads are decamping for the internet and online revenues aren’t making up for lost print ads.

But Bilton envisions a world where news is freed from the confines of newsprint and becomes better.

It’s whether the shareholders and board of directors agree with him that counts, of course.

Also via TechDirt we see that Slate are using crowdsourced reportage (in this case photojournalism of Depression2.0, or whatever you prefer to call it) to lower costs and improve audience engagement at the same time. Contrary to the teeth-gnashing of industry pundits, newspapers aren’t going to die… but it’s clear the herd is going to be culled pretty seriously as it passes through the needle’s eye of technological and sociological pressure.

Unsurprisingly, younger members of the newpaper business believe that newspapers could save themselves by learning from the Silicon Valley approach – by embracing technology, change and way-out ideas rather than suppressing or ignoring them. They’d better move quickly, though.


The future of online news from 1981

Tom James @ 20-02-2009

There is something wonderful about this 1981 newscast on the future of newspapers delivered via personal computers:

Interesting how things turn out.

[via The New York Times]


Web not killing journalism, improving it

Paul Raven @ 12-02-2009

newspaper with blogging headlineWe’ve heard plenty of worrying from journalists about how the death of print newspapers will be the death of journalism itself, so here’s a contrary view from within the same camp. Jim Stovall of JPROF suggests that the medium of newspapers is actually part of the problem, and that journalism will be improved once it is no longer chained to the printing press.

He provides a number of reasons for optimism, of which I think this is the most telling:

More reporters. Students in my experience are wildly excited about this new age of journalism. I am honored to be the faculty adviser to the Tennessee Journalist, the student operated news web site of the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee. More than 35 people regularly show up at our weekly staff meeting (only the editors are required to come) and the numbers are growing. The number of our majors has grown from 350 to 450 in just one year.

What has caused this, I wonder? The tempting conclusion is that the ease of self-publication has made people less intimidated by the idea of producing writing in public, but maybe it’s also to do with the erosion of the media monoculture – the web has provided a space for dissenting voices and niche interests that newspapers couldn’t support, tied as they are to physical locations.

Whatever the cause, it’s good to see some optimism. Journalism was born out of the desire to learn and communicate, and it looks like that desire has been increased rather than eroded. Who knew? [via TechDirt; image by Annie Mole]


Cheaper to give away Kindles than print the New York Times

Edward Willett @ 03-02-2009

According to an analysis by Silicon Alley Insider, it actually costs the financially struggling New York Times Company about twice as much money to print and deliver the newspaper over a year as it would cost to send each of its subscribers a brand new Amazon Kindle instead. And an inside source tells them their estimate of the Times‘s printing costs is so low it’s “not even in the ballpark.” (Via Instapundit.)

Bottom line: “as a technology for delivering the news, newsprint isn’t just expensive and inefficient; it’s laughably so.”

No, papers can’t–yet–force everyone to read their content on some sort of hand-held device. But in the future, why not? Subscribe, and get a free ebook reader to which stories are uploaded regularly as they’re posted. Bonus: you can use the reader for other kinds of content, too. Which would also drive ebook sales. Win-win.

(And I say this as the former editor of a weekly newspaper, who once swore up and down that nothing would ever replace traditional print…a former newspaper editor, I might add, who now reads his local newspaper‘s digital edition exclusively.)

(Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]newspapers,ebooks,media,technology[/tags]


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