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.