Newspapers: How Long until They Are Gone?
I recently read a brief article by Ross Dawson in which he not only foresees the death of newspapers, but actually gives a timeline (by country) in which he specifies the year in which newspapers will become irrelevant. In the USA that will be in 2017; in Australia, in 2022. In Spain, by 2024.
When I first read the news I was shocked. What did he mean by “irrelevant?” Where would we get the news after that? Then I realized he actually meant paper newspapers. And it all made sense, but I was a little disappointed. I mean, who reads paper newspapers, anyway?
The reasons he gives for the disappearance of newspapers are the widespread availability of electronic reading devices (tablets, smartphones, e-readers and what-have-you), the ubiquity of an Internet connection and the advances in digital monetization. I think that last bit is crucial: apparently, even though the number of viewers of an add get multiplied by thousands if it is placed in the online version of a paper, advertisers still seem reluctant to pay as much for an electronic add than for a paper-based one. That is bound to change and it will have to, if newspapers are to survive.
One would think that the Internet age would be perfect for the thriving of newspapers. After all, their printed edition is sold at a loss, since their major revenue generator is advertisement. The Internet makes printing obsolete and getting your paper to more people a much easier task. This fits right into the business model of newspapers: the money does not come from the readers, who read the paper for free (or subsidized, as until now) but from the advertisers, who want the readers to see their adds.
However, papers have not been doing so well, not only in their printed versions but online. To me, the crucial question is not whether and when printed papers will disappear (not even journalists buy the paper nowadays) but whether newspapers will survive in any form, printed or not. I certainly wish they do, because without reliable sources of information and serious, investigative journalism we will be at the mercy of whatever misinformation the rich and powerful want to feed us.
I have seen several examples of papers or journalists which are managing to thrive in the online age. A good example from my country (in fact, my country within my country, Catalunya) is Ara.cat, which uses the now-classic freemium strategy, where readers can access some of the basic news, headlines and article summaries but have to pay a small subscription fee to access the rest. In this case, content is king: people are subscribing to the service because the selection of columnists is simply astonishing. It is a newspaper that focuses on opinion and investigative journalism and is therefore the kind of newspaper people who really want to stay informed will pay to read.
Another option that seems increasingly common is crowdfunded journalism. In this case, a journalist starts a blog and asks for donations from her readers; if she needs to go on a trip, she starts a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money. This model seems to work for individual journalists who want to be responsible for their own articles, without giving in to the pressures of mass media. It favors, in theory, a much more independent kind of journalism which is basically funded through the people that read it and is thus not subject to pressures from companies threatening to remove their advertisements. My only objection to this strategy is it is bound to have a limited impact: no matter how influential you get, you will never beat the cover of the New York Times.
Crowdfunding is also a viable option for small newspapers. Not long ago, Spanish online magazine cafeambllet.com was condemned to pay 10,000 € to a Spanish politician who accused them of defamation. Many of its readers suggested it start a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money. Cafeambllet refused: instead, they crowdfunded the publishing of a book exposing the corruption of the Catalan government, especially in their management of the welfare state. Cafeambllet came out of the clash stronger than ever and is thriving in a world where traditional newspapers are biting the dust.
I believe newspapers have to take the Internet seriously if they want to survive. By that I do not mean “have an Internet page” but know how each different platform works and adapt to it. This means an article should have different headlines depending on whether it will be viewed in a mobile app or in paper; different abstracts should also be provided, as well as innovative ways to access the information. If journalists keep doing things the way they’ve always done, writing as if their article was meant for a printed paper and then just posting that same article online, they will be outdone by other media who do know their element and who adapt their content to the platform it’s being viewed in. I am tired of using my mobile newspaper app and finding abstract headlines that don’t tell me what an article is about, just because the journalist assumed I would be able to start reading the article without clicking on it.
Another important aspect is the unification of experience. A newspaper is a brand and, like any brand, it should offer a certain customer experience that should be reproducible across different devices. The Spanish newspaper El Pais, for example, has one of the best iPad apps in the market and one of the most sluggish Android ones. This is bad branding: a reader with an iPad and an Android phone (or a Nexus 7) should not have to endure different user experiences across devices, unless the device really warranted it. Taking the Internet seriously means thinking about these things. It means having a strategy and a usability guide. It means using the same company for making your Android and iOS apps or, should that be impossible, having clear guidelines to ensure the experience is consistent.
A lot of newspapers are not doing this now. They have two years, five tops, to get their act together.
If they don’t, I say good riddance.