Monday, April 13, 2009

The Future of Newspapers When They No Longer Print on Paper

We've been recommending that companies (clients and nonclients) consider optimizing their news and information for search engines and Web 2.0. Not all are on board because of some very good reasons:
  • Costs: Concern about needing additional investment in marketing given current conditions. Costs could include professional production of video and audio.
  • Training: Identifying the skill sets required, and making sure staffers have that training.
  • Metrics: Establishing benchmarks that are appropriate and meaningful and help quantify ROI.
Ok, but this post is entitled "The future of newspapers when they no longer print on paper," so what's PR got to do with that?

The answer is that PR has to re-imagine itself to be relevant to our clients and to the people we're trying to reach on behalf of clients. And if newspapers want to charge for their online content, they have to re-imagine themselves, too.

From an eyeballs' perspective, online newspapers are spectacularly successful. More people read newspapers online than read the hardcopy editions of newspapers.

From a financial perspective, of course, this has been the worst year/period ever for newspapers in terms of revenue.

Few people actually pay for online news. So the question that publishers need to be asking themselves is:
  • If we were inventing newspapers today, what would they look like?
  • How would they charge their readers?
  • How would they charge their advertisers?
To answer the first question, newspapers need to embrace Web 2.0 functionality. They need to tag articles. They need to make it easy to link to articles -- on their sites and from other sites. They need to allow us to choose the format of the content we want. Some like to read articles; some prefer to listen to podcasts at the gym and others prefer to watch video. Newspapers must be able to offer all three formats. Perhaps the audio and video could be raw footage from events, conferences, etc.

If invented today, newspapers' online navigation and searchability would be improved. We might have a page with headlines and a 140-character summary of the article -- not just the article's first line -- and if interested, a link to click on to read more.

That leads to an answer for the second question: you could charge readers a monthly package for a certain number of articles they clicked through to read or an unlimited package (borrowing on plans offered by cellphone companies).

I'm not going to address here how to charge advertisers.

But given the plethora of choices of free news services, newspapers trying to achieve profitability through an online-only business model have to do more than just repurpose and post their print mindset to the the Internet.

Unfortunately, too many are not doing the work to invent a news outlet today. And they're doing so for similar reasons some companies are not embracing Web 2.0 for their PR functions.

But the bottom-line is this: If all they do is repurpose the print version, newspapers won't survive online. They must redefine the experience so that readers will be willing to pay. If they don't redefine the reader's experience, newspapers will fail.

There are two interesting articles in today's New York Times:
  • "‘Hyperlocal’ Web Sites Deliver News Without Newspapers": Which looks at a few sites offering news based on your block. That seems like an okay alternative for cities, but probably does not provide a bigger picture of what's going on in the entire city.
  • "Papers Try to Get Out of a Box": by David Carr, who sums up the situation like this: "The taking of one company’s content and selling ads against it for the benefit of another company is simply not fair, no matter what the lawyers stipulate. But even though this is not the world newspapers might have chosen, it is the one that they live in. Deprived of links — the oxygen of the Internet — many news providers would wither away."

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