Last week at the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) conference in Hyderabad, one was treated to intense and often heated debate on the future of newspapers. Putting this in context, newspapers have long been losing subscribers and advertisers to the Internet, and the economic crisis has severely aggravated the situation. Newspapers are shutting down in droves, and thousands have lost their jobs.
The audience (largely publishers, editors and journalists) was divided into four distinct camps:
Scared & Clueless: I have no idea what to do, and very little hope
Aggressive & Aggrieved: Google is responsible for all our problems, and fighting google will solve them
Innovative & Fighting: New strategies – we can fight them if we’re smart
Reformist: We have forgotten why we exist, and we need to go back to our roots
Let’s leave aside the “Scared & Clueless”, who despite being the majority, had very little to offer. The next group, who blamed google (or the Internet) for their travails, were extremely vocal. Rallying around recent statements by poster boy Rupert Murdoch, they vented their ire on the search engine giant. Differing points of view (expressed better than I could) are available at:
My own view favours the digital tribe. As one of the speakers at the conference said, “Giving away content for free (on the Internet) was the biggest mistake newspapers made.” It’s dead easy to stop google (or any other search engine) from indexing your site. If we value what we produce, then why give it away for free?
Adherents of the last two groups (a minority) argued that readers will pay for differentiated, exclusive content. A few case studies were presented, where innovators actually managed to buck the trend. The formula: deliver what people want – in design, content, style, and whatever else. The hypothesis of the purveyors of this school of thought was that “news reporting is a commodity, we need something different”.
I couldn’t agree more. With a once-in-24-hour delivery, how on earth (or beyond) can newspapers compete with TV, radio or the Internet? But if news has little value today, then what has?
Various experts propounded their views: more analysis (what next?), better targeting of community wants, quality opinion, investigative journalism, sophisticated visuals, and so on.
But this means hard work! Not many will invest in research to understand their readers’ needs. Many more will refuse to accept that the game has changed (keep blaming google). And the profession will resist a world where re-writing of press releases and newswire feeds will no longer be construed as “good” journalism.
And this is why I’m pessimistic about the future of newspapers in aggregate, even while being extremely optimistic about those that can discover and then deliver what their readers actually want. And as in any revolution that changes business models – a few of the brave will reap disproportionately high rewards!