Stop the press

Mon, Oct 8, 2007, 01:00

MEDIA:The long-heralded death of traditional news media may be some time away, but the pace of change is increasing

The death of the newspaper has been foretold so often in recent years that newspaper executives, editors and journalists could all be forgiven a weary sigh every time the next big thing comes along with a view to slaying their media dragon which has held sway for more than a century.

Ever since The Irish Times joined a handful of other newspapers on the web in the autumn of 1994, industry analysts here and across the globe have been gazing into virtual crystal balls trying to pinpoint exactly when the dead wood versions of newspapers would be finally confined to the dustbins of history.

It hasn't happened yet but over the last decade the phenomenal growth of web-only news sources, online classified advertising platforms, personalised news feeds, citizen journalism, music and video downloads, and content aggregating search engines have put tremendous pressure on traditional media organisations.

Now we have the next wave - Web 2.0 - the social-networking technologies which have been gathering pace over the last number of years posing a whole new set of challenges and questions.

There was a time when the only question being asked by senior executives was whether or not their newspapers should bother with an online presence at all.

Now they have to come to grip with all manner of imponderables. Should they charge or give content away for nothing? What kind of value-added services do they need? What about blogging? Should websites, with their capacity to publish breaking news as it happens, take precedence over the print product? If so, how are news pages to be filled? What about user-generated content? And, most importantly, how can they make money in this new age?

Some old media organisations have responded well to the challenges and embraced many of the emerging technologies through the addition of audio and video streams onto once static pages and the incorporation of personalised news feeds and user-generated content, whether as contributions to polls or blogs, or even using the public as news gatherers themselves.

Others have been slower off the mark and have either put their fingers in their ears and hummed a happy tune hoping the digital menace would go away - it won't - or just slapped up static pages and hoped that would do - it won't. On the surface, it looks as if Irish newspaper circulation trends and radio listenership figures are okay.

The most recent ABC figures from last June saw this newspaper increase its circulation by 2,000 to just over 118,000 while the Irish Independent and the Examiner fell slightly. All the major Sunday newspapers made small gains. It seems clear, however, that these figures are being buoyed up by massive immigration and a booming economy, and newspapers have been asking why sales have increased so little, or not at all, given the expansion in our market and economy?

Trends are more dramatically downward in the US where many of the big daily newspapers have started feeling the squeeze. More and more people are content to get their news from the Daily Show, from the blogs of like-minded individuals and from YouTube, leaving many major newspapers and television networks struggling to cope with sharp and sustained dips in circulation and viewers.

Advertising revenues are significantly down across the market (except online, where, like Ireland, the trends in 2007 have been very good) and many newspapers have taken to slashing staff numbers, overhauling their newsrooms and completely re-thinking the emphasis which has traditionally put print first and web second.

The San Jose Mercury News and the Atlanta Journal Constitution have been at the vanguard of a revolutionary restructuring process in recent months and many of the policies that editorial staff have adopted - with varying degrees of willingness - would give journalists working closer to home nightmares. "Everyone here knows that the position they hold today may not be the position they hold in six months," says the San Jose Mercury News executive editor Carole Leigh Hutton.

"I make no commitment that there will be a business editor or a sports editor or a city editor, because that may not be what we need," she says.

The New York Times now employs its own "futurist-in-residence" to help it adapt to the changing media landscape, while the LA Times has created a "Manhattan Project", made of up some of its key editorial staff to try and find ways to breath life back into the newspaper.

There is a growing sense that the internet has "commodotised" news and if it can be delivered fast and fancy online it will be a lot more appealing than dedicating the entire paper to it. But if all the news goes online, what is going to go into the newspaper?

One Danish newspaper hopes it as found the answer. It has accepted that news has less value on the day after it happens, so it has moved 30 staff from its print edition to its website to produce breaking news. This is then modified and used as a digest running through the following day's paper, the rest of which is dedicated to covering stories in far greater depth. It is a risky strategy but one which other newspapers will copy if it is seen to work.

Closer to home, while all the major newspapers and RTÉ have undertaken significant website redesigns in the last 12 months, there is nothing quite so revolutionary on the immediate horizon.

The Irish Independent has dropped its registration process and added blogs, while ireland.com has taken its breaking news service from under its subscription umbrella, introduced Web TV and a fully searchable digital archive of The Irish Times going back to 1859. It has also added blogs and exploited RSS feeds and links to social book-marking and ratings services, a move which, while less flash then some of the other developments, may signal the way of the future.

The biggest threat to traditional media has long been considered to be personalisation. It challenges like little else the newspaper's position of gatekeeper with the ultimate responsibility of deciding what its readers should be reading.

Newspapers customised to suit individuals preferences were developed in an MIT project called Fishwrap in the early 1990s. Quickly dubbed the Daily Me, the idea is a model of simplicity. A personalised newspaper could bring together the world news, letters and op-ed pages from The Irish Times, the sport from the Daily Star, the death notices and home news from the Irish Independent, the business news from the Financial Times and the arts features from the Guardian and the New York Times into one totally individual - and perhaps a little confusing - newspaper.

Of course, it isn't just the content of traditional media outlets that is being aggregated; blogs and news feeds from an array of sources have long been filtered onto desktops and into browsers. Critics of the personalisation phenomenon says there is a danger in readers exposing themselves to opinions and views they already hold, creating an "echo chamber" where everyone agrees with everyone all the time and dissenting voices are never heard.

Personalisation has taken several steps forward in the recent years and, when elements of social networking have been added to the mix, it has become considerably less isolationist.

Last month the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), in Washington DC, posed an interesting question: "If someday we have a world without journalists, or at least without editors, what would the news agenda look like? How would citizens make up a front page differently than professional news people?"

It set about trying to find an answer. It examined the news values - as determined by users - of three social networking sites: Digg, Reddit and Del.icio.us. Digg and Reddit allow users to vote up or down stories submitted by other users, while Del.icio.us is a bookmarking site - the more people bookmark a site or story, the higher it climbs in the rankings.

The PEJ found that the biggest stories in the minds of US social networkers in June - at a time when the military surge in Iraq was in full swing, the US presidential race was gathering pace and many Americans were up in arms about proposed immigration reform - were related to technology, with the iPhone being the page one lead.

While the buzz a story generates may see it climb high in the reader-rated ranking, there is little way a reader can make a judgment about the reliability of the news sources or even the reliability of those recommending it. In response to the PEJ study, pioneering blogger, media commentator and author Dan Gillmore said: "Mix in reputation - an enormously complex problem - and you have something worthwhile."

NewsTrust.net may have gone some way to solving the reliability problem. Its stated aim is to help people find good journalism on the web through the provision of "quality news feeds, media literacy tools and a trust network to help citizens make informed decisions about democracy". It carries daily feeds of news and opinions, which are rated by members based on quality, not just popularity and articles are evaluated against "core journalistic principles such as fairness, evidence, sourcing and context".

It may not be enough, however, for Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy. Speaking to Innovation last month, he complained about a lack of debate amongst bloggers who, he said, just used the internet to confirm what they believe. "We are media insiders, we know our way around the internet. We can find the high quality blogs that are out there. We know that Wikipedia is not reliable and that you have to pay for reliable content. We know that YouTube is not really serious, it's just a bit of fun. But the new generation doesn't, that's the core of it.

"As more people come onto the net who are less versed in traditional media and who are less educated, they will believe everything they will see," he said.

"When you do away with filters, editors and gatekeepers, there is no way of knowing the reliability of any website."

PICK IT, PRINT IT, READ IT

Feedjournal.com allows people to build their own personalised newspapers using feeds from blogs, online newspapers and other websites.

Once users have selected all the news feeds they want, the are converted into PDFs in seconds, given the look and feel of a traditional newspaper and can be printed out.

Jonas Martinsson, the inventor and chief executive, is in talks with several newspapers and news distributors who are interested in using his technology.

In a twist to the ongoing debate about the future of newspapers he says that "reading on paper is not trying to emulate the online experience, they will continue to co-exist" although he expressed the hope that in the not too distant future the online and printed worlds might come merge in the form of eInk and ePaper.

There are some relatively new electronic e-Ink devices from, for example Sony, providing a decent reading experience. "To have a wirelessly connected device like this hooked up to FeedJournal and other services would rock," Martinsson says.