Today in class we discussed one of the most fundamental questions linked to the impact of new media: how has new media affected the newspaper industry, and can it – or will it – survive that impact?
Some historical background is useful here.
The last time that newspapers were in the business of news – that is, breaking news about events – was before the General Strike of 1926. Before then, when radio was in its infancy, the BBC wasn’t allowed to produce its own bulletins. News was broadcast only in the evening, with the bulletins written for the BBC by the newspapers.
During the General Strike, however, the BBC stepped in to report the news, and got a taste for doing things its own way. Since then, more or less, people have turned to broadcast media for news about events. It’s what radio does well, whether it’s reporting from the front line in World War 2, or just broadcasting crucial speeches and press conferences. We may get tweets and texts now, but the radio is still very often the most accessible medium – at home, at work, or in the car.
Today, we asked in class, what is it that newspapers do well? We came up with the following:
- In-depth analysis and deep background, also known as:
- “Soft news” to accompany the “hard news” about events
- Commentary and opinion
- Taking sides (and therefore campaigning)
- Checking facts
- Reporting the reaction to the news
- Offering a rich experience in printed text and (large) image
- Being portable and requiring no batteries
The next question was this: apart from when radio took away the newspapers’ ability to report on “breaking” news, how has new media affected the newspapers’ ability to do what they traditionally do so well?
The real answer – which the newspapers should have realised, instead of hitting the PANIC button – is that new media does nothing to affect the newspapers’ traditional role. On the other hand, they have panicked.
- They feel pressure to be first (online) instead of accurate
- They feel pressure to be free, whilst looking for ways to hide their content behind a pay-wall
- They continually look for ways to stop the internet doing what it does best (copy stuff, instantly, cheaply, over-and-over again)
- Just as they did in 1922, when radio came along, they see the BBC as “unfair competition”
- They undermine their own ability to sell (print) advertising by competing with themselves for online advertising
- They force their journalists to offer audio/video as well as print content
- They run huge and expensive web sites, which they feel the need to update constantly to keep up with the competition
What might they do to survive?
In my opinion, pay walls are a dead end. As previously noted, it takes just one person to “reveal” what’s behind the curtain on a blog or a rival news site (it’s quite legitimate to report what others are reporting) and your pay wall is blown.
Any attempt to offer a “richer” experience with a paid-for PDF is also doomed, because people are willing to accept any amount of lost quality if something is free.
My own solution would be to stop giving away their content online – altogether. Instead of putting almost the entire print edition online, they could publish a daily update of “what’s in today’s paper” and “what’s in tomorrow’s paper” – perhaps a running blog of story conferences and editorial decision-making, along with the usual wire-service stories – and then make you pay for a rich print edition with all the content you otherwise would not get.
Forget trying to compete with the BBC and Twitter on breaking news. Do what you do well – what you always did well – and do it in print.