The Web is not Satan's latest tech-spawn. What's more, our good old newspapers are not dying. So, for whom does the bell toll?
If one were to take a cue from James Cameroon's latest flick, Avatar, it is surely going to toll for those who can reinvent themselves for an alternate world. Only, in the newspaper world, it transforms to not just a new look, but also new form factors that must be donned to survive the fast-changing game of information dissemination.
A lot of newspapers across the world, such as The New York Times, have already embraced this change wholeheartedly. Some, such as The Guardian, have surged even further and released tools such as the application programming interface. This new "open platform" will enable content partners to reuse online and back-dated printed content on their own Web pages for free. In return, they will be committed to developing the newspaper's online advertising network. As a result, The Guardian has moved beyond its single edition online entity and woven itself into the fabric of the internet.
So, what's bringing about this change in an age-old industry?
When The New York Times building opened in 2007, 57 storeys on Manhattan's 42nd Street, it seemed like an ambitious statement of intent. This most famous journalistic brand in America would stand for nothing but the best in global journalism. Then, suddenly, its masthead, which bears the famed motto, 'All the news that's fit to print', began to pale.
It would be unreasonable to assume that people were just going off newspapers. Either the readers had found a better deal somewhere else; or the profile of readers had changed; or, frighteningly, both.
Think about it. Today, anyone can get content, not just from his expensive notebook, but also through his UMPC (ultra mobile PC), gaming console, cell phone and a multitude of other devices. Not just that, studies show that on an average, teenagers do not regularly read newspapers, since they "cannot be bothered to read pages and pages of text" when they can see summaries online or on television. In fact, the exercise is futile: "Trying to get d youth 2 rED a newspaper wen DIS iz d lngwij dey live on"1. The Gods must be laughing.
Surprisingly, a great part of the resistance to go digital stems from the fact that newspapers attach way too much importance to the 'paper' part of their names. Sure, it is difficult to imagine a newspaper not made of paper; but it is far more important to understand what this change implies. So yes, the paper, as we know it, is ailing.
But this is certainly not cause for despair. It isn't that newspapers are becoming irrelevant; they still have something strong to offer. It's just that they just have to think hard on how they're going to offer it.
Procter & Gamble realised years ago that consumers want their toothpaste in a variety of ways. From one size and one flavour, they began offering a dozen (if not more) options to meet consumer needs. From pastes to gels to whiteners to breath-fresheners, the list looked very impressive.
Newspapers today need to recognise that their consumers too enjoy the newspaper in a variety of ways. The challenge, therefore, is to deliver that newspaper to them in whatever form they require.
In short, it was never about print versus digital. Besides, newspapers are in the information industry, and not the printing industry.
This change makes sense. Newspapers need to move away from the Morning Window and expand to much more. Once this paradigm shift in perception occurs, all is well. A change to digital will seem not like a fashion or fad; but what it truly is -- an organic growth of print itself, a change to suit the tastes, and more importantly, the needs of the audience, given they are who they are.
A shift to digital will automatically affect a multifaceted evolution. From a one-way medium, the newspaper will instantly become a two-way dialogue, thanks to the interactivity of the Web. This will necessitate the relevance of blogs, discussion forums and serious chat room activities, taking static news-reporting to another new level of reader involvement. And this brings to mind another of those changes we were talking about: content and its relevance.
More of tomorrow and less of today and yesterday, and acting locally but with global relevance need to be the underlying thumb rules. Newspapers need to stop being fact files; they have to turn into 'viewspapers' through analysis-rich and varied content. Only then will the reader be seduced into getting more and more involved.
In conclusion, here is the clincher for the non-believers still out there. Back in 1993, the Knight-Ridder2 newspaper chain was troubled by the piracy of Dave Barry's popular column, published by the Miami Herald and syndicated widely. During the attempt to track down the sources of unlicensed distribution, a teenager in the Midwest was found copying some of the work, because he loved it so much he wanted everyone else to have access to it as well.
Moral of the story?
As Gordy Thompson, who managed internet services at The New York Times then put it: "When a 14- year-old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem."
"A good newspaper," Arthur Miller commented in 1961, "…is a nation talking to itself." So, while the rustle of newspaper pages grows softer, there is no chance that Miller's national conversation will not be louder than ever. But it will be stronger only if we care to focus on the printed word; and the new ways in which the public can view it.
1. How Teenagers Consume Media (Matthew Robson, July 2009 - Morgan Stanley Research)
2. Source for Knight-Ridder ref: http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/
(The author is head, MSN India, Microsoft Corp India)