In the wake of US newspaper USA Today recently unveiling a new version of their site with more cutting edge ‘new media’ features than any other, I thought it might be a good time to have a look at the challenges posed to newspapers by the onslaught of new media, what they are be doing about it and what they should be doing about it.
Undeniably new media (that is, the general availability of the Internet and the new types of publishing it enables, such as blogs and podcasting) has had a significant negative impact on circulation of newspapers. There are roughly two schools of thought over why this has occurred. The cynics would argue that it is because the ‘old media’ no longer has the trust of the public, and instead people turn to indie publishers, such as bloggers and podcasters, to provide information on what is happening in the world around them. A more moderate viewpoint would be that the Internet has lowered the barrier to entry into the publishing industry to such an extent that anyone and everyone can publish content (the long tail effect), thus inevitably reducing market share of the big players. It would seem that this view is the more sensible.
If newspapers wish to stay relevant therefore, they are forced to innovate in the realm of new media. Their future circulation is at stake, and if they fail to successfully capture market on the web they miss out on potentially millions of pounds worth of advertising a year. Hence the effort the newspapers are putting into finding a way forward.
What are they doing about it?
The biggest, and perhaps most notable addition to the newspaper’s content production is audio visual content (AVC). AVC refers to anything from podcasts to video blogs to video news reports. These are of crucial importance because of the value they provide to the consumer’s experience above and beyond that found in the newspaper.
The recently relaunched Times Online seems to be taking this the most seriously with the launch of an entire AVC section. They are currently providing over 10 different podcast series, and video content from their Iraqi correspondent and a car review show. Whilst the Times Online is making an admirable effort, my personal favourite newspaper podcasting effort is that of the Comment is Free section of the Guardian Unlimited website. I particularly enjoy their Media Talk podcast, to which I devotedly listen every week.
Another noticeable theme is the rise of user generated content (UGC). This is when users add any of their own content to a site, whether by means of a blog comment, uploaded video or anything else. This is an important trend for newspapers to be adopting for two reasons. The first is that users have come to expect the ability to add their thoughts to a story; provision of comments enhances conversation, and thus interest in the story and ‘stickiness’ of the site as users return to read comments in response to their own. The second reason is that UGC is ideal for any business looking to monetise content through advertising because it provides virtually free content, next to which can be placed fee-paying ads.
Almost all the recent newspaper Website relaunches (such as that of the Times and the Telegraph) have the ability to add comments, as well as more the forward-looking Guardian Unlimited, which has had the feature for some time. However, by far the most adventurous in UGC is the recent relaunch of the USA Today site. USA Today is building a fairly robust social network around their content, which allows users to comment, have their own avatar, ‘recommend’ (effectively digg) stories as well as a profile page.
Taking it further
Over time it is clear that the journalist will have to become an expert in all types of media. They will have to be able to easily transition from writing a story for a newspaper to producing a podcast interview to setting up and tweaking an installation of WordPress. Whilst many journalists will be struggling to be as technically proficient as this requires, I believe the necessary skills will develop over time.
The temptation will be for newspapers’ websites to become more and more like a combination between Weblogs, Inc and Digg, with loose editorial control and use of wisdom of the crowds to determine top stories. It is crucial that this is resisted, because to move in this direction would mean that newspapers would lose their unique selling point of quality, carefully edited content.
The challenge, therefore, is for newspapers to continue to innovate without losing sight of why they are important sources of news. If they succeed, they will continue to flourish, otherwise perish.