Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ How Newspapers Can Survive the Information Age

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 11, 2000

In an interesting article posted on T hunderbird, the University of British Columbia's Online Jorunalism Magazine, writer David Galloway explains newspapers' survival in the age of television as a feat of adaptation. Specifically, he writes, newspapers survived by:
  • switching to morning editions,
  • using more colour,
  • becoming more interpretive, and
  • by relying on traditional strengths, "they distill the news, compress it and make it accessible."

Galloway opines that newspapers will survive the challenge posed by the internet just as they survived television: by adapting where necessary, and by relying on their traditional strengths. But while this advice seems sound on the surface, its implementation is not straightforward. For a newspaper's strengths are not exactly as depicted by Galloway, and those publications that get this calculation wrong and not likely to survive the decade.

Let's look at the strengths of traditional newspapers, as enumerated by Galloway:

  • First, he writes, quoting Derrick de Kerckhove, director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, "The job of the newspaper is to sort out items which are relevant to the public's interest, over and above those which address purely individual needs." Newspaper writers and editors identify that information we need to know, even in those cases where we didn't know we need it.

  • Second, he writes, a newspaper is more convenient to read. "Would anyone really look forward to a Sunday morning curled up in an easy chair with a cup of coffee and a computer screen? I don't think so. A newspaper in its present form works. It's already wonderfully interactive. You can pick it up and put it down whenever you want."

  • And third, he suggests that newspapers are uniquely able to connect buyers and sellers, as they do through the classified advertisements. "The key to the future of the newspaper industry lies in its continuing ability to bring buyers and sellers together. Newspapers have always been the gateway to classifieds. But our customers don't merely want to read print classifieds on-line; they want value-added service."

These are important strengths: but if Galloway thinks that they are unique to newspapers, then he is mistaken. In important ways, the internet provides all of these services, and does not suffer from some of the significant disadvantages of the traditional newspaper.

Consider the first strength: the capacity of newspapers to identify what news is important, even if that news falls outside a person's expressed interests. This is certainly a strength. I have utterly no interest in medical and health related news, for example, but I would like to be notified in the event of an outbreak of the plague, contaminated drinking water, or similar event of community-wide importance.

Writers like de Kerckhove, and Andrew Shapiro in his recent book, The Control Revolution, suggest that because the internet allows content filtering, people will be sheltered from news and information outside their areas of interest. But reasonable people plan for and incorporate randomness in their lives. That's why they travel, browse in bookstores, lounge in pubs and coffee shops, and - yes - read newspapers.

NewsTrolls and even Slashdot gather information from a wide variety of sources, exposing their readers to the unusual and unexpected. Many web readers have their favorite personal log - or blog - site where a trusted writer gathers, filters and interprets new information. Sometimes the selection of what is important is predetermined by a political bias, as on Free Republis. Sometimes not.

These online news aggregators will offer significant competition for newspapers because they will perform the same service and they do so at less cost to the reader (if you include the cost of a computer and internet access, newspapers are curently cheaper than online services, but this will change).

The second strength of a newspaper, portability and usefulness, is also being challenged. It is obviously inconvenient to linger with a computer screen over breakfast, or to curl your laptop under your arm for a quick read on the bus. Computer screens are also much smaller than even tabloid sized newspapers, and as mentioned above, they are more expensive.

But comparing a newspaper with today's computer technology is like comparing a horse to a 1910 automobile: the horse was clearly more flexible, did not require special feeding stations, and could travel anywhere, not just on a flat surface. Computers will evolve, and one direction in which they will evolve is in the use of digital paper, a display device which looks and feels like paper, but which displays digital images downloaded from the nearest internet feed.

And it is easy to imagine reading a digital newspaper with your morning coffee, especially when the paper includes video clips, links to primary sources, content filtering, and is also your telephone and scheduling program. Roll the digital paper under your arm and take it on the bus, read it in the bathtub, or turn it into a computer game with a couple taps of your finger: the digital newspaper will be a model of flexible design.

Compare this to the traditional newspaper: first, the traditional newspaper is very bulky, since an additional sheet of paper must be added for each page of information (readers of the Sunday Times know what I mean). Second, it is fragile: it falls apart when wet, blows away in the wind, and is easily torn. Third, it is messy: newspapers have never really solved the problem of ink-stained fingers. And fourth, it is static: the news in a newspaper is often several hours out of date; my morning newspapers rarely ever contain complete sports scores, even though the games have been completed for several hours.

Finally, Galloway tells us that newspapers offer a unique way of connecting buyers with sellers. In this, he is thinking specifically of the classified advertisements, but he also admits that readers will want more than a static display of a few lines of text (and maybe a picture). Quite true: and it is in this desire for interactivity that we see that the traditional print-based newspaper is in jeopardy.

In online auction sites, such as eBay, we see a more likely vision of the future classifieds section: an opportunity to scan advertisements from around the world, to interact with those buyers online, and to place an order (at no cost to ourselves) without leaving the kitchen table. Newspaper classifieds sections will have to evolve considerably in order to meet the eBay challenge.

All of that said, I agree with Galloway's major tenet, which is, that newspapers will survive. And I agree with him that they will survive by adapting. But I think that newspapers will have to look well beyond their traditional mandate if they are to see a future for themselves.

First of all, let's consider the real strength of a traditional newspaper: local content.

The fact is, the Edmonton Journal would not exist at all were there not local news to report and were there not a demand for news of interest mostly to people living in Edmonton. For otherwise, people could make do with the National Post or the Globe and Mail, or even Time Magazine.

Local news takes two major forms:

  1. News that occurs locally and is of relevance only to local readers: for example, City Council reports, local crime reports, traffic and weather, sports coverage of local teams, and the like. For the most part, nobody in San Francisco cares what the temperature is in Edmonton or about the state of its local cat bylaw. This news will be produced, and for the most part consumed, in Edmonton.

  2. Localization of national or international stories. From the array of news items available from around the world, local editors filter those likely to be of most interest to Edmontonians. Thus, news from the oil and gas industries will receive greater play than that from the sugar-cane industry, and news from Canada's parliament will be reported more frequently than that from Britain's parliament.

This work: the creation of local news, and the filetring of external news, is and will continue to be the major task of the local newspaper. Any pretensions of being anything else - such as a person's sole source of news and information - will be sorely misplaced. A newspaper must appeal to a reader's house and home: the reader's interests, politics, affiliations, hobbies and other activities will be covered by other publications (as they are today, with trade and specialty magazines).

This is good news for newspapers: it means they will not be replaced by content syndication services such as Moreover or iSyndicate. To be sure, newspaper websites will be consumers of these services, just as today newspapers purchase syndicated columns and wire reports. But the syndicates will not compete with local newspapers.

Newspapers should also rejoince because, as producers of unique and original content, they will have access to a much larger market than they ever did before. True, the interest in Edmonton's weather is minimal: and certainly the work of locating an Edmonton newspaper in San Francisco minimizes this interest. But there is some interest out there - expatriates checking up on the home front, for example, or demographers tallying climactic data. Each bit of Edmonton news can reach a larger market through online syndication and data retrieval, and while no bit of news is likely to generate significant revenue, the aggregate may.

In order to adapt to this wider market, newspapers will have to prepare for a global audience. This means providing current (and archived!) news in accessible form. It must be on the internet, and it must be structured in such a way as to enable efficient and precise retrieval by intelligent search agents. In this way, a newspaper's present and part content will be able to generate revenue in ways the traditional morgue of back issues never could.

Finally, newspapers must be prepared for the day they will abandon paper as their primary medium of delivery. That day is not today, for newsprint remains a cheaper and more convenient alternative to online delivery. But that day is soon, ans online technologies become less expensive and more widely available, and as newsprint becomes more and more expensive.

The newspaper's web site is a good place to begin offering these and similar services. It is a good place to offer local content and to provide access to material for syndication by data collectors and other readers worldwide. And it is a good place to begin to test some of the interactive features which will attract local readers.

Any newspaper which thinks it can survive into the electronic age by providing solid content in print format is mistaken. Newspapers must go online to survive. But survive they can, provided they provide solid local content. After all, there is no competing source for deep, insightful local news. None at all.

Not yet, anyways.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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