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The Future of Newspapers

By James Caldwell | Published: February 23rd, 2009

I recently sat down with Gary who was writing his graduating thesis on the topic of newspapers. Because of my background in traditional and online news media he wanted to pick my brain about what I thought were the real issues concerning the future of the medium. This topic is of great interest to me considering I am also participating in a research group that is trying to define the future of the book.

For the love of news on paper

For the love of news on paper

We started the conversation via an old-fashioned session of show and tell. Gary laid out some vintage newspapers for me as well as some other, more contemporary ones from around the world. I then proceeded to take a quick tour through time and technology as I went from very early British newspapers that were imperfect yet perfectly personal to today’s modern computer generated crisp and exacting layouts. Of course what I was missing were the papers from the future but I guess I will have to wait for those.

‘Hot off the press’ will be forever known as ‘hot off the wire’. Newspapers must evolve to meet the demands of a new generation.

During the conversation I found myself defending the newspaper industry on several issues while also chastising it for their lack of vision. The positive issues focused on content and value from journalistic integrity and professionalism, the negative issues focused around their business models and their confusion as to what to do now and next.

The traditional positives
  • Newspapers don’t generally hire hacks; they hire people who have a love of and have been trained with a journalistic focus. These people understand their greater role in public information dissemination and actively try to write articles that increase their personal value with in-depth, interesting, and compelling stories.
  • There is a community of editors and other talent such as photographers, other writers, information graphicists, librarians, etc., which creates a wealth of support for each article written.
  • There is a comprehensive understanding of one’s subject matter that is built up with years of practice. Multiply this by a hundred or so professionals each with a different speciality and the newspaper becomes a wonderful and lively knowledge base. The employees are able to bounce ideas off each other and then contibute their articles to produce a newspaper that delivers news ranging from world politics to local ‘feel good’ stories.
  • Newspapers arguably have the best format for displaying mass amounts of complex information or great amounts of content on a particular subject matter that can easily be read.
  • There are, of course, more positives about the paper medium itself but I want to talk a little now about the negatives.
The old and new negatives
  • Newspapers no longer deliver the most timely news, that is now the realm of the internet. But this is a big problem, by the time your local newspaper is ‘hot off the press’ the information it carries has already been delivered.
  • As the internet has grown so have community interest groups which are regularly supported by large numbers of people which allow them to network which in turn leads them to feel personally important. Even if a story is not written well or authoritative, some people relish the idea of being able to speak their mind or shout their opinions even more.
  • Similarly people are not necessarily interested in the range of editorial that a large newspaper is able to give them. Many people prefer targeting multiple internet information sites to get the news in a timely manner that they are interested in.
  • It may just be a matter of habit or the intrinsic warmth that one gets from a paper product, but unlike the new generation who are much more comfortable with online content, the older generation (I span both of these) sees or rather doesn’t see online content as readable. This ongoing event is not going to get better. Younger people have phones, PDAs and computers to read on and they are already used to it.
The present combination of traditional and online

Some newspapers are cannibalizing their traditional content when they produce their web property. They are not branding them or using the different mediums for advantageous purposes. In the worse case scenarios newspapers are even marginalizing their opportunities for advertising by seeding both their traditional and online properties with the exact same articles.

In a race to be current, they are not keeping ahead of the trends but are playing catch up with ‘me too’ ideas that may or may not be beneficial to them. They are generally confused with the technology and still trying to figure out how best to align their editorial departments in both on and offline offices. Because there are two distinct mediums that newspapers must pay attention to, they now have the problem of a divided focus which pools from basically the same revenue. In addition the talent pool is producing two different but similar products which raises the questions of internal organization and communication structural changes. There are also legalities of compensation and copyrights considering that newspapers are fleeting dailies whereas online information is searchable and has longevity for articles, photos and graphics.

The future of the newspaper

I believe the newspaper is not dying but evolving, not necessarily because it wants to but because it has to. But this evolution is not a bad thing. If newspapers continue to deliver authoritative in-depth content the younger generation will continue to subscribe (I use this term loosely).

Newspapers have almost lost their brand focus and they need to reiterate it for their target audience. It is said that the newspaper one reads says something about that person’s character and education level. One subscribes to a certain newspaper because they feel it is more appropriate to their identity than others would be. That newspaper’s brand becomes part of an individual’s identity. A similar relation will have to be formed with upcoming generations.

So what is the future? Well the distribution model will change from expensive and time consuming print to electronic dissemination over the ether. The subscription model will still be in place just as the ads will be but newspapers will be able to deliver their content to a range of devices in a timely manner. The articles will be searchable, contain interactive content and develop community followings like they do presently in the online world.

So my hypothetical children may one day sit in their chair eating their pancakes on Saturday morning reading their own personalized funnies that were automatically downloaded to their very thin and flexible but durable electronic paper page that I received when I bought my yearly subscription. They will even flip the pages with the same old finger swipe gesture. The only thing I will miss is recycling all the old newsprint or lining the kitty litter box with it.


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    ( 2 comments )
    1. k branscombe says:

      Weekend editions of the toronto papers make me guilty — they all have a number of sections such as automotive, new suburbs condos/houses etc.,whose content i have no interest in, I feel bad about the waste too bad one can’t custom design one’s content, creating a slimmer save a few trees paper.

      I look at the nyt on line, but not on a daily basis, because it “eats my time” while other things wait & wait.

    2. Roy says:

      I find this topic endlessly fascinating, funny and sad.

      Fascinating because as a self-confessed news junkie who now works online, it’s lots of fun to guess and imagine what the future will be, nobody has the much of a clue as to how it’s really going to shake down, so pretty much anything goes.

      To wit, in an article in the March 25 T.O. Star, some guru named Jeff Jarvis (blog: BuzzMachine) laid down the gauntlet to news print operations everywhere, urging them to start planning for the day their presses will shut down for good (his prediction: two years).

      But at the same time, Jarvis admitted: “We’re all confused… There is incredible opportunity, once we figure out what it is.” My reaction: People are actually *paying* this person for his thoughts?

      And while the Seattle Post-Intelligencer recently did just that — went completely digital — the rags in such print strongholds as Toronto, Chicago, London and New York are a completely different kettle of fish. The P-I only had a circulation of 119,000, down from 200,000 in 1998.

      By contrast, the Star has roughly 440,000 daily/ 640,000 weekends, though they’re no doubt falling yearly. The NYT is at 1million daily/ 1.4 million weekends (source: what else? Wikipedia)

      I’m a news junkie, and grew up with a love of newspapers, especially as a teenager, when I could — and often, would — spend hours on Saturday morning, perusing the exhaustive weekly Major League Baseball batting and pitching stats (now sadly no longer published by The Star).

      Funny because this argument reminds me of the one — now, the myth, really — of media convergence as the holy grail of media empires.

      Funny also because this most recent round “new tech killing old tech” discussion has been going on for a good ten years now in various forms, e.g., CD vs. vinyl, mp3 vs. CD, DVD vs. VHS to name a few. Most eventually reach an equilibrium and learn to co-exist .

      And finally, sad, because I fear that at least some of what you predict will come true, namely the extinction of the printed, ink-staining newspaper.

      Like you James, at 42, I’m old enough to have grown up loving newspapers, and currently subscribe to three.

      In defence of the printed form, does anyone ever really predict when the glorious Sunday New York Times, and its accompanying special T Magazine editions will disappear?

      I don’t know, there’s a place for internet news, when you need or want the most basic details quickly.

      But nobody has yet persuaded me there’s a better way to really immerse yourself in a thorough discussion of a news story than with a cheap, handy-dandy, foldable, disposable, recyclable printed page — no batteries or solar panel required.

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