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The Future of Ink on Dead Trees

The Future of Ink on Dead Trees

By now you’ve likely heard that 42 percent of Americans said that they wouldn’t miss newspapers if they all folded. Since the major online news sources still get most of their content from traditional newsrooms, a larger question is would they miss the art of journalism?

Until recently, history was maintained in print. If it wasn’t a story in the New York Times, it didn’t happen. That was the mantra of “regular people” and not just news people and historians.

Today, at least theoretically, Google could own the record of history. As the search behemoth gets deeper into targeting advertising, could they personalize history for your taste? There’s a nasty scenario, and let’s not even talk about what THAT would do to standardized tests. (And by the way, the answer is yes, they could).

All these “dying media” stories come from selectively plucking tidbits from the annual State of the News Media report from The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s (PEJ). It’s not all gloom and doom, but much of it reflects the Internet evolving as the new “printing press.”

Two developments that converged last year, according to the PEJ report, have shorted the time that journalism has to reinvent itself.

“First, the audience migration to the web accelerated substantially in 2008.” While visitors were flocking to the online sites of traditional news organizations – even at triple the previous year’s rate – a strong negative economic impact was felt. Simply, the media as a whole has not adequately monetized the new technology. They are still using the industrial revolution advertising model, for lack of a better term. (Where is that classified section revenue??!).

Ad revenues for daily papers dropped 16 percent last year; 23 percent over the last two years. The result: at least 10 percent of full-time newsroom jobs were cut in 2008.

The second development is that the recession has flattened advertising and cut back on creating new technology-based revenue streams.

“The growing public debate over how to finance the news industry may well be focusing on the wrong remedies while other ideas go largely unexplored,” according to the report. From micropayments, using the cable television payment model for the news, or developing online shopping sites with a news portal – paralysis by analysis is taking over, while finances deteriorate.

Another trend which can determine the end-game is how Americans are using web-based news content. “Power is shifting to the individual journalist and away, by degrees, from journalistic institutions.” PEJ says the future is still murky, but it is the consumer who is moving toward individual voices and away from traditional news sources.

Blogs, email, search and social media are all playing a part in the emerging landscape.

“On the Web, news organizations are focusing somewhat less on bringing audiences in and more on pushing content out.” RSS feeds and e-mail are the most popular methods of getting the story out, but the report does emphasize that many news outlets are more effective reaching people with Twitter and Facebook.

Twitter, for many web and especially mobile web users, has replaced the need to check RSS feeds that can populate stories in a newsreader or on a Google or Yahoo home page.

Users, as with everything in “Twitterdom,” see up to 140 characters of text, which may frequently include a link to more content. The information is in real-time.

If the story is interesting or important, there is “retweeting” – essentially a resending of the story by others to their network of “followers.” That gives the story “legs” and the chance for more eyeballs, and potentially more revenues.

Now with about 40-million mobile devices, the United States has surpassed the United Kingdom as having the largest number of people accessing the web from mobile devices.

The sheer number of cell phone cameras makes us all potential participants in covering the news. We’ve all seen the photo of the US Airways plane in the Hudson River. That started on Twitter and was around the world in minutes.

As for journalism, an interesting finding: “No major news outlet – broadcast or cable, print or online – stood out as particularly credible. … The partisan divide that has crept into news consumption widened.”

Could it be that we, as a people, are willing to replace impartial journalism that “observes and reports” events for being skeptical to all reporting? Our current behavior says yes, we’d rather be skeptics.

Citizen web sites, especially local ones, are picking up steam. They are playing with different financial models, sharing best practices with each other, and to some extent, capturing some dollars along the way.

National web sites and aggregators like Google are getting better at presenting local advertisements tailored to the user’s preferences. This too, will siphon even more ad dollars away from traditional media.

Where is the hope for journalism?

“Refugees of the mainstream press helped launch or staff a number of independent new ventures online. … A review by PEJ of several of the larger initiatives finds they are offering some solid journalism in niche areas of interest. But for now, these new ventures rely primarily on philanthropic funding and partly for that reason seem more suited to fill in the gaps of vanished journalism than to replace the industry entirely.”

Where is the hope for ink on dead trees? While the PEJ report says it is too early to tell, but it is indeed possible to see major cities without newspapers in the future.

I believe the future of journalism will be dependent on the creativity in how the existing newsrooms focus on what they do best and monetize the behaviors and needs of their readers. The web is a personal media. They may see success once they learn to react to their users and leverage the best of both media. They must evolve with their users. Either way, it will be an interesting ride.

Wayne Kurtzman is a senior marketing analyst who loves the shiny toys of technology and online communities. He has led knowledge management and web analytics practices for startups and larger companies including Intel. Wayne also is active at the international level of Destination ImagiNation, a not-for-profit organization that fosters teamwork, innovation, and creative problem solving skills in students from kindergarten through college.

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