Friday, May 13, 2011

Belshaw's World - newspapers not sentenced to death in digital age

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 4 May 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

I finished my last column talking about the way that the MSM or main stream media had incorporated the new media into its reporting.

I suggested that the full flowering of this arrived with the Japanese earthquake and recent Middle East troubles. There the MSM used tweets and YouTube posts to gain instant information that could not be acquired by normal reporting means, while blogs were used to provide continuous news updates.

In the battle of technologies that featured in my original post, can the print media survive? After all, newspapers are closing around the world.

My view is yes. I say this for a very simple and practical reason. It comes back to fitness for purpose.

Email destroyed the fax because it proved to be a better way of transmitting documents.

Facebook took people away from writing and reading blogs because it was a better vehicle for the purely personal. Twitter took people away from Facebook because it offered a better broadcast messaging capability.

Twitter itself is aging and has become clogged with ephemera. However, it has proved to be remarkably good at some things, and those are the things that will survive, focusing on needs that a short message length with broadcast and retweet capacity best serve

By contrast, the core strength of the newspaper lies in its printed page and broader content.

As a rough rule of thumb, you can only put about 60 per cent of the content of a printed page onto an equivalent web page if you want the same effect.

The reason for this lies in the way we read. We simply can’t absorb web presented information as efficiently as print.

In my own case, I am a very fast reader. I find that my web speed, while still fast, is about half that when reading the printed page.

Now the new technology with all its very different feeds and forms of expression is not bad at keeping people in touch in a fast moving situation such as Japan or the Middle East as compared to the traditional newspaper, radio station or TV. However, it is not good when it comes to matters requiring a little more depth and reflection.

To see what I mean, compare the printed version of any newspaper of your choice with the on-line version. TV web sites including the ABC are worse.

The on-line versions are all shortened, condensed, light on content. They also have far more visual material, much supplied by readers or viewers.

I check up to a dozen news sites every day. It takes me just half an hour, for example, to scan read the Sydney Morning Herald, ABC and Australian websites. Useful, but unsatisfying.

Further, content shifts so quickly on most sites that it can be hard to find a story again, thus destroying one of the key online values. Frustrating and not at all useful!

To my mind, problems in on-line delivery means that newspapers are likely to survive in printed form as part of an overall but much more differentiated pattern in which the specific features of individual technology modes are used to deliver content best suited to those modes.

I don’t think that any of the newspaper groups have yet got the mix right, largely because they continue to think of the different transmission mechanisms as different ways of delivering the same content to the same audience. That’s self-evidently not the case.

If different forms of content better suit different modes, then content needs to be tailored to those modes. Further, while there are commonalities in audience, the audiences for the different modes are not the same. Again, content needs to be tailored.

Each newspaper has a different actual and potential reader base. Herein lies another part of the problem, for the way many media groups organise themselves around modes such as print press or digital media, the way they centralise, actually makes tailoring hard.

In the end, the success of all forms of for-profit media comes back to control over a regular reading, viewing or listening audience that can be delivered to advertisers. If you don’t properly tailor your content, then you can’t tailor your advertising.

While none of the newspaper groups have got the mix right, there are some fascinating signs of what might come. I will pick this up in a later post.


J Bar said...

Interesting reading.
Sydney - City and Suburbs

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Jim. I have several more stories I want to do on this one because I am still working my own ideas through.