The web isn’t dead: Newspaper edition
For all the talk about whether apps could be the salvation for newspapers, one little question has been glossed over: Are apps actually a disservice to readers of what, for lack of a better description, we still call newspapers?
The key advantage of the internet over radio or TV is immediacy. Stories fly straight from pocket-sized devices to a great discussion in the sky with no friction being heard. Short bursts of information — as much or even less data than traders on the exchange floor use to make snap, million-dollar decisions — are what drive the conversation now.
Newspapers all have, or could have, vibrant web sites. Web sites are exciting because they are immediate, hamstrung only by the stupidity of servers, how much traffic they can handle and how fast the Internet is working today. You share a story, and BOOM, there it is: Waiting to be discovered by random travelers, spotlighted by RSS, Tweets, Facebook updates and shared by a geometrical progression of friends you didn’t know you had.
The metaphor is: If you build it, they will come.
What is the metaphor for an app? Turns out it is exactly the same as the original newspaper paradigm: Here we are, come and get it.
Now, there are some economic realities involved. It is a fact that there is still much less money to be made per reader on the web compared to print, even for major media properties. It is also true that newspapers arguably made every mistake they could during the formative years of the Internet, trying to protect their print franchises and only grudgingly acknowledging the web.
Discussions about whether to break a news story on the web or hold it for tomorrow’s paper are not in the distant past. Neither is the debate about whether to link to external sources, or to even prominently acknowledge the source of a bit of news that you are now writing about.
But it’s also true that newspapers need a double-digit multiple of online readers to match what they make with the walled garden that is a newspaper — a product which can’t be shared easily, is self-contained, static and very difficult to update in real-time.
Sound familiar? We call them “apps” now.
For what it’s worth I don’t think periodicals face this particular conundrum, and I believe I would think this even if I didn’t work entirely in the online part of a huge magazine company. Yes, magazines have exclusives and love their “reveal,” but their editorial dynamic is almost completely controllable. Print magazines simply do not have to react as quickly or in the same way as breaking news organizations.
The chief advantage of the app to a reader is also its shortcoming: Once you’ve downloaded a batch of bytes you can enjoy them anytime, anywhere, even where you have no connectivity — like on your commute on that unconnected train. But once it’s there a publisher needs contrivances to push new information. And even the local cache advantage is slipping away as smartphones become portable hotspots, offering shared 3G and soon 4G bandwidth on the fly.
So, be honest now: If you had a desperate need to know something, would you go first to the app version of your local newspaper or go online using that browser app that comes pre-installed with every connected mobile device?
Newspapers are facing an unrelenting identity crisis, brought to them by the most disruptive force since the industrial revolution. Some critics believe that benign neglect is mostly responsible for the pickle newspapers find themselves in, that they both ignored the threat for too long and then put the wrong foot forward (hint: Reuters makes much more money dispensing information than it does news).
But apps are the flavor of the month, a new opportunity to sell subscriptions. And there is no doubt that nascent tablet platform will drive innovation and give birth to imaginative new formats. We see this already with such shockingly simple but compelling ideas like Flipboard, Pulse, The Atavist and the re-invention of the curated personal newspaper — look, feel and all — from places like paper.li.
But when it’s crunch time, when the world is fixated on a breaking news tragedy, like Japan or Libya, you will go to the web, period. You won’t open The Daily and you won’t access The New York Times app.
Which means that newspapers once again have to find a way to compete with upstart breaking news competition, as they did against radio and TV and cable.
Fortunately, this time, they have a powerful, new tool. It’s called the web. Figure it out. Please.
Editor’s Note: This column originally misspelled the word “by”. The piece has been updated to correct the misspelling.
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