A Salon On The Future of News(papers)

Thursday evening, I went to a salon (I’m not sure what else to call the gathering at the McLeod House in Seattle.) Called by host Jason Preston (Eat, Sleep, Publish) to discuss possible business models for publishing in the digital age, the focus was newspapers. The challenge, well one of them, was decoupling the “news” from the “paper.”

Despite the fact that I regularly show my students EPIC:2015 (YouTube) as one (dystopic, perhaps) vision of the future of news, I remain skeptical that newspapers will simply vanish by then. But when Jason moved the event horizon to 25 years, I joined the majority of those present who believed that the daily newspaper — at least as we know it (printed on dead trees, delivered to our homes) — will be no more.

I am, however, concerned that the recessionary and inflationary forces that are the logical outcome of the past two week’s mess that is Wall Street could cut some newspaper organizations down at the knees. Already teetering financials may not be able to take that double hit alongside the inflationary pressures already resulting from rapidly rising gasoline prices. (Remember, newspapers are delivered by motorized vehicles … and all that paper has to get here from somewhere … ditto the trees that make the paper … you get the picture.)

I was, I think, the senior member of the group! There was one other boomer, but I’m pretty sure I’m older than he. :-)

Most of the group appeared to be late 20s, early 30s. Many were “geeky” (doh – the advert went out on Facebook, Twitter and Upcoming.)

With a quick show of hands, it became obvious that the 17 folks in attendance do not represent America’s news pattern. When I asked who watched “TV news” (whether on a TV or a computer), and then said “no, Jon Stewart doesn’t count,” only 1/3 raised their hands. When I asked who reads news — either newspapers or on a computer screen — I think I got 100%.

In August, Pew reported that most Americans still get their news from TV. Only 34% said that they “read a newspaper yesterday.” Contrast that with 57% for television and 29% for online news. Frightening: 1-in-5 said that they got “no news yesterday” … bump that to 1-in-3 for those under age 25.

But that was not the news consumption behavior of those in this group!

What are some of the pluses … why might daily newspapers survive?

  • Convenience
  • Portability
  • Very information-dense display compared to any current digital output device (I forgot to mention this one)
  • Not everyone is (or will be) wired
  • The cost of publication lends credibility to the information in the paper
  • Scarcity (limited space each day or in each section) also lends credibility to the information in the paper

What were some of the minuses articulated?

  • Online stories have the potential of going deeper: they are not constrained by physical limits and can link to primary source material
  • Newspaper information is “tired” (old) whereas online news is up-to-date. [One could argue that the time lag is a good thing, as the odds of rumor/error are lower.]
  • Poor signal-to-noise with content-to-ad ratio being the most commonly cited issue. This is not an issue for me; newspaper ads are (a) easy to skip and (b) not interruptive

The big challenge, of course, is this period of transition.

Most newspaper web sites could not stand alone if they didn’t have the newspaper itself generating the content. There currently doesn’t seem to be a business model that will support a newsroom doing both investigative and “daily” news. Yes, there is TPM with its kudos and awards for Attorney-Gate … but Josh is a journalist, not a citizen blogger, and he’s not supporting a newsroom with GoogleAds.

My concern remains the type of news we need to be informed citizens … you know, the kind most people won’t pay for. [Some argue that this sort of news will be covered by the wire services, a further reduction in the number of voices or points of view in the “official” news space.] Entertainment, escapism … we seem willing to pay for that! It’s not unlike the difference between apple pie or ice cream and broccoli or spinach.

Monica Guzman recommended that newspapers direct future investments to their online properties, not their printing presses … and that they figure out a better way to transition reporters from the print desk to the online world. Sound advice, that … but news organizations are, generally speaking, conservatively managed. One can hope and cross fingers and toes … but I’d advise not holding your breath while we wait.

It was a lively two hours. Props to Jason for organizing the event. I look forward to the next one … and perhaps continuing this conversation at MindCamp.

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

4 replies on “A Salon On The Future of News(papers)”

Very interesting post KG.

A comment about format and print going away, something that many journals are struggling with – there are many people that will not read the news online, and the people that online newspapers may want to attract may be these same people. They have supported newspapers in the past and do so today. These people, if journals are any indication, are not interested in the latest and most functional online property. They only want the straight content. If younger people are the ones that appreciate the interactive and linked content online but are not accessing it, then online newspapers are in a very sticky position. Two groups, neither if which is happy with what newspapers are doing.

A note on the minuses: I subscribe to the NYT online and read it fairly closely as soon as I open email; two days later, the Seattle Times has some of the same articles in print. Drives me crazy. I’d much prefer local content.

Oh. And have I mentioned lately just how POed I am at FF3 on the Mac?

I am, in fact, LOGGED IN in the tab to the left of this one … this page opened from that tab where I was fixing my typos … and yet WP doesn’t know that I’m me (hence the lack of image beside my name) because FF is WONKY. Still. I don’t have this problem on the PC.

Am I the ONLY person having this problem on a Mac? Sheesh.

You’re welcome, Jason, and thanks for the invite. It was stimulating. :-)

Despite my initial yelp about how many young folk didn’t get any news “yesterday” … I’m not going to freak out until I can put that data point into perspective.

Be care with all that “on demand” stuff … y’all will sound spoiled and self-centered!

Kathy – what an awesome round-up post! You’ve done a much better job of capturing the debate here than I did this morning with my post.

The big whoppers, for me, that you’ve brought up are:

1) the changing news audience (young people not getting news at all), and
2) the current financial state of the world

I’m actually less worried about number 2, probably in part because I know less about what’s going on than you do, but also because I know many major newspaper corporations have their fingers in magazines and other areas of publishing that aren’t suffering the way newspapers are.

I also think that number one is 70% a distribution problem and only 30% a content problem. Most young people (and I am guessing based on my own experience here) are probably skipping the news mostly because it doesn’t come to them in the format that they want.

I like to refer to my generation and those that come after me as the “on-demand” generation, which basically means we are content snobs. We want our TV tivoed, we want our movies from Netflix, our music on iPods, and damnit, we want our news to be on our phones.

I think if newspapers can figure out how to put the content in the right places, the audience will grow again.

At any rate, I’ll definitely be at MindCamp, and would love to continue the conversation there ;)

Thank you so much for coming to speak – I know you have a busy week/end, and your knowledge and your contributions were invaluable.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.