Category Archives: Technology
What is the future of newspapers in the digital era?
Two of the most obvious possible answers:
Or, simply: “There isn’t one.”
But the real answer may not be quite that simple — or bleak.
Just building a website isn’t enough
Without more changes, most print media probably have no future. Circulation numbers continue to drop. You rarely see city folks packing the local daily around any more, or leafing through it at the coffee shop.
But just throwing their existing content online isn’t likely the answer either. City daily newspapers usually emulate a one-stop shop for all types of news — local to international, politics to entertainment — and this model used to work for enough people, before the Internet arrived. It’s rather difficult these days, though, to imagine many people surfing to the websites of theor Omaha World-Herald to get their international or Hollywood news. Too many specialized, superior alternatives are available.
Yet most newspapers have been slower to adapt their content than their form. It’s a lot easier for papers to just build a website based on their age-old model than to fundamentally reinvent themselves.
In my view, though, they are going to have to make that effort. And by doing so they could keep both their print and online versions viable for many decades to come.
The way forward
The trick is to get off the beaten path. Focus on what’s in relatively short supply on the Internet, and do that well. This is the era of specialization, after all.
For local newspapers, this has to mean local news. In my hometown of— and I doubt the situation is much different elsewhere in North America — I still have few other good sources for what’s going on around the city and province than the city’s media outlets. But the local daily newspapers are still clinging to their old one-stop shop model, and rarely offer the quality of local coverage that would interest me as a reader. A refocusing of resources that are currently being spread across too many different priorities is required.
The papers might say: ah, but international newswire services are cheaper than reporters’ salaries. But I’d call that penny-wise and pound-foolish: it really won’t matter when their whole operation goes down the toilet soon because of its increasing irrelevance to the public. Dump the wire services, add just a few staff, and reimagine the whole news focus. Dig deeper and produce more thorough, well-written articles about the city and region. Worry less about breaking news, and more about producing the kind of depth and polish you see in the better magazines. There are about 4.5 million people in B.C.; that should provide enough material to work with.
Such a refocusing would not just give newspapers better, unique content for their websites, but could also make their print versions viable for some time to come. People still like to sit down and read, so long as the content is engrossing enough to them. Newspapers with higher-quality, longer-form articles that can’t be found elsewhere could provide that.
Probably a major rebranding effort would have to accompany all this. And the total number of publications will still likely have to shrink, through mergers as well as closures.
So for some papers, there probably is no future. But for the rest there could be — if they’re ready to do more than just set up a website and a Facebook page.
I share some of Sara Barbour’s sentimental attachment to good old hardcopy books.
Ms. Barbour, in a June 17 L.A. Times article, offers an impassioned defence of books in the face of the Kindle invasion. For instance, books are more charming because they’re wrinkled and the spines are cracked. You can scribble in them. Big hardcovers make a satisfying “whomp” noise when you drop them squarely on the table. (OK she didn’t mention that one, but I always liked it.)
I don’t even own an e-Reader myself, yet. Like Sara, I take a certain retro-minded comfort in persisting with the old technology.
But Ms. Barbour’s melodramatic prose and wonky reasoning had me wondering if I was on the wrong team here.
Things get iffy in a hurry: the article begins with the expression “several weeks into December,” when her parents were feeling her out about possible Christmas gifts. Now I suppose the word “several” could be used to refer to a number as small as three, sometimes. But I personally reckon that “several weeks into December” is better described as, you know, “January.”
An editing issue or two could be excused, though, if her arguments were sound. Or rationally expressed.
But too often they’re neither. Some examples:
- She likens Kindles to video-chatting online with a friend. It’s nice, she tells her pal, but “the screen isn’t you.” Well, a hardcopy book isn’t the work itself either, any more than a Kindle version is. They’re both just publishing formats. When an old classic is reprinted numerous times with different cover designs, which is the “real” book?
- Her ode to books can tug at the heartstrings at times, but she overdoes it with lines like this: “Something crucial is lost forever,” she writes, when a story is “trapped in a Kindle.” I get visions of the Jaws of Life being called in to save the day.
- And what is this something crucial that’s getting lost? “The book can no longer be scribbled in, hoarded, burned, given or received.” Burned? I thought you liked books, Sara?
Her main point, though, appears to be that books are better at connecting people. Gifts make for happy reminders, and suchlike. But it seems to me that e-Readers can do the same or better with functions like copying a favourite passage and e-mailing it to a friend. If anything, curling up with a hardcopy book has more of a solitary nature to it than using any device with links to the vast public meeting space known as the Internet.
On top of all this, Ms. Barbour’s nostalgic resistance to the new technology seems a bit hysterical. There’s no sign that books will vanish any time soon. A recent poll found that one in six Americans now use an e-Reader, but those people are also buying the most hardcopy books. And e-book sales remain a small fraction of the total. If books are destined to go the way of vinyl records and VHS tapes, it won’t happen for a very long time, at this rate.
So let’s not get too weepy here, Sara. You’ll have books to burn for many years to come. For me though, if the case for sticking to books can’t be made much better than this, I may be off to Amazon’s website to check Kindle prices.