Last rites, or rebirth, of newspapers?

Circulation is down. Ad revenues are down. Ad Age is running a special series on the U.S. industry entitled Newspaper Deathwatch in which one media analyst says: “When an offline reader of a paper dies, he or she is not being replaced by a new reader.” It doesn’t look good for the ink-stained fourth estate.

The Internet has been a threat (mostly) and opportunity for newspapers. Unfortunately, most organizations thought slapping up an online version of their printed edition constituted a successful play in “new media.” Woops. Others have seen the light sooner. Their online presence goes beyond historical one-way communication (Here’s the news: now read it and go away until tomorrow…) to employ an architecture, forums and content that attract eyeballs, encourages participation and builds loyalty.

First, more newspapers are outfitting staff with video and digital cameras in addition to notepads. Capturing interviews or events, in their entirety, has little to no space limitations online compared to the real estate limitations of the printed page. Video content is the future, plain and simple. Plus, it can be great entertainment (Chef Ramsay, the toast is on fire!).

Second, online editions are springboards for more detailed information or directly to the source. Readers may link somewhere else, but they’ll keep coming back because you give them access and direction to richer content.

And third, some newspapers are taking the leap into the user-generated content (UGC) world. It’s a huge leap of faith: at its core, UGC is the anti-thesis of newspapers’ traditional role as the authoritative voice of its particular community. It’s one thing to allow comments at the end of online stories. It’s another to allow the public to generate those stories and other content on your site.

A few papers are walking this talk, in part because UGC supplements shrinking newsroom resources (yes, UCG is unpaid and arguably impacts paid staffing levels, but that’s another blog…). In Canada, the Montreal Gazette has opened up the kimono with West Island Plus, featuring reader-generated stories, photos and local event postings alongside Gazette staff-generated content. Providing those forums and content complements the expertise and content provided trained journalists (i.e. posting a local hockey team tryout time isn’t the same as investigating the suspiciously high mortality rate among seniors at a nursing home). The Chicago Tribune’s Triblocal and Washington Post’s Loudounextra are also making this play to engage (keep!) readers. It gets readers to participate. The next step is to see newspapers creating mini social networks that allow readers to create their own conversations unfettered. Should the city be using taxpayers’ money to build that sports stadium? What can we do to revive downtown? How do we get more kids involved in volunteer work?

Ultimately, keeping readers is about keeping ad revenue (a newspaper sales rep once opined that I and my fellow journos just filled in the gray space around his ads). Keeping revenue keeps the lights on. Will building stronger online capabilities, applications and ultimately loyal eyeballs attract enough people to immediately offset the shrinking print ad revenue? No. But if newspapers are going to survive and thrive, it will make the transition quicker and less painful.

Can newspapers evolve quickly enough? If not, how long before their eulogy?


1 Response to “Last rites, or rebirth, of newspapers?”

  1. 1 Steve Ballmer y la agonía de los periódicos de papel Trackback on June 7, 2008 at 1:38 am

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