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.
When I was a reporter, breaking an important story seemed about as much fun as work can get. Especially when you’re writing for a smallish local newspaper, watching the bigger news outlets go scrambling after your story can be quite a satisfying feeling. And better still if the story exposes some kind of government wrongdoing — you imagine your college dream of becoming the latest Woodstein might at last be coming true.
But somewhere along the line I started to wonder: Does anyone notice or care about this sort of thing, other than us in the media? Say, for example, the readers?
Speed isn’t everything
These days, of course, there is just one forum for breaking news that regularly beats all others. It’s called Twitter. Conventional media can’t compete with a billion smartphones and iPads, even if the press is trying to speed-publish their stories on their websites.
But even when a newspaper does get its licks in, this preoccupation with getting-there-first is a bit self-absorbed. Outside of newsrooms, I can’t imagine there are many watercooler conversations about which news outlet got what story first. The media is doing well if people are talking about the story at all.
This is not to say that timeliness shouldn’t be important in journalism, especially with the simplest and shortest stories. It’s called news, not olds. But in the panic to beat the Tweets, or slap the promotional “exclusive” on a story, is the quality of the content getting the same amount of attention? Being quick off the mark isn’t the only way to be exclusive. Approaching a widely covered issue in a thorough, well-written style from a fresh angle is just a little too exclusive, meaning rare, for my liking. And it may just mean a little more to the readers.
The media’s private war with the government
And while media outlets play a private game of Beat the Clock with each other, another insiders-only battle continues to go on: media vs. government.
Yes, challenging the powers-that-be has always been a key purpose in the media’s role. But too often this ends up taking the form of just embarrassing government figures for its own sake. Then the politicians respond by investing large amounts of public funds in PR strategies. Then the media respond by accusing the government of wasting money. Then the government responds by improving the snacks on offer at its next press conference. How much of all this is really in the public interest?
The print media industry is already in trouble and faces a very uncertain future in the digital era. It can’t afford to put its energies into game-playing that means little to its readership any longer.