To say the least, 2008 proved a difficult year for newspapers in many nations. Rising printing and distribution costs, waning circulations and fragmented audiences continued to challenge a business model that seems increasingly outdated. And despite many promising advancements made by newspaper companies in Internet and mobile, revenues remain far behind those of print.
But the news is far from all negative. Below is some food for thought for newsroom executives everywhere, ways in which newspapers began adapting to the modern media landscape in 2008 that will continue through 2009.
INTERNET TRENDS BECOMING NEW TOOLS FOR JOURNALISM
2008 saw the continued proliferation of social and professional networking sites Facebook and LinkedIn, with newspapers and journalists, with newspapers and journalists, such as the New York Times well-known columnist Nicholas Kristof, creating their own profiles, applications and connecting with new audiences. User-Generated Content (UGC) continued to gather speed as well, with CNN's iReport in the US and LePost in France among many others around the world. A December report by the Bivings Group also noted that 58% of US newspapers now use some form of UGC.
But the biggest social media revelation to journalists came in the form of 140 characters. The social site, Twitter, which allows users to post short messages for all to see, officially became a widespread tool for journalists in 2008. For example, journalists covering the US Presidential Elections took live notes from conventions and rallies that readers could follow and that also helped to shape those journalists' main story. During the Mumbai terrorist attacks, "tweets", or Twitter messages, appeared as the first news of the attacks. Twitter feeds can also be aggregated, bringing all angles of those covering a certain event into one, comprehensible, instantly-updated record.
Another Internet trend is the "Personalized Web", evoked by newspaper experiments such as MyTimes and start-ups such as Netvibes that provide customizable pages based on RSS feeds and widgets. Arguably the boldest example of personalized news is the BBC's revamped homepage, released in March 2008, which allows users to create their own page based on the BBC information they use most. But personalized news seems to be picking up more slowly than social media. For one thing, Internet users are used to getting the information they seek from many Web pages and may not yet be ready to create their own pages. Secondly, search engines still rule, meaning that traffic to most news sites continues to come through Google, its competitors and their various news and alerts functions. So a customizable homepage like the BBC created, which could ultimately prove a competitor to search engines, remains to become a habit of the general Internet public.
Personalized news and social media are just two examples of all of the innovation that is occurring in digital media. As technologies continue to rapidly develop, how are journalists and publishers going to keep up? Is it worth learning to use all of these tools if six months down the line they prove to be a fad? Are these technologies hurting or helping newsrooms gather and report news?
Chances are, in 2009 journalists everywhere will continue to experiment with the latest digital fads, and smart newsrooms will set aside R&D funds to play around with new ideas. Who knows? Despite predictions that 2009 will be a difficult year for newspapers, with a lot of hard work, calculated risk and a bit of luck, the industry could find the online golden egg that it has been seeking.
PROLIFERATION OF ONLINE-ONLY NEWS SITES
Perhaps filling in for the difficulties of the print product, more high-profile Internet-based sites began popping up in 2008. Perhaps most notably, The Huffington Post, launched in the summer of 2005, has already jumped to one of the US' top-30 news sites, bolstered by the US Presidential Elections, according to Nielsen Online. Media pundit, entrepreneur and Rupert Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff trumpeted the late-'07 launch of his news aggregator Newser as a "revolution in how people get their news." One year after Wolff's launch, he gained a competitor in Tina Brown, a former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor, who launched her own, rapidly growing online-only site, The Daily Beast, a mixture of aggregated and original articles. And these are only the high-profile, American examples. The relatively low overhead costs of launching an online-based site combined with the ease of aggregating content and news commentary means that this trend will surely continue in 2009. But there is one problem with the sites mentioned above. Aggregation and commentary can only go so far: in an online environment, what happens to the investigative journalism that newspapers have provided for the past two centuries?
Investigative journalism is expensive to produce. Money-wise, it has always been a loss-leader for newspapers. But with modern-day information ubiquity, investigative journalism is just a loss. Whereas once newspapers could claim ownership of a groundbreaking piece and sell papers and advertising around it, now readers are often unaware of the original source of the story they are reading on the Web. So what is going to happen to the type of watchdogging we need for democracy?
Several non-profit start-ups have begun to answer that question. In late 2007, former newspaper editor, Joel Kramer, took his print expertise and moved it online with the launch of the non-profit Minnpost.com. Former WSJ editor Paul Steiger did something similar with ProPublica. The Voice of San Diego, and other similar sites around the US, are making a name for themselves as "serious, original reporting by professional journalists," with the New York Times declaring the sites "stand out" amongst Internet news sites. Crowdsourcing site OfftheBus, a partnership between the Huffington Post and the non-profit NewAssignment.net, helped capture the 2008 Elections and the Knight News Challenge winner Spot.Us is collecting donations from the public to fund investigative stories. Even former Merrill Lynch newspaper analyst Lauren Rich Fine backed the non-profit model in 2008.
With this in mind, are the days of major metropolitan and national newspapers digging up the dirt on businessmen and politicians over? For the time being, no. But newsrooms everywhere are under extreme economic pressures and have been cutting core staff, making it even more difficult for newspapers to conduct the type of investigative journalism their communities need. Don't be surprised if more non-profit (no dividends to shareholders), Internet based (low operating costs) ventures spring up to fill the gaps.
COMPETING NEWSPAPERS PARTNERING UP
As many newspaper newsrooms are cutting staff, wire services should be in greater demand than ever. But 2008 saw a backlash against the world's biggest news agency, the Associated Press, by its members. Several publishers handed in their notice to the non-profit agency partially in response to price hikes and complaining of low value for their money.
In response to the AP mini-exodus, some papers, even those in competition with one another, began joining forces. Papers in Ohio and Florida whose geographical coverage overlaps are swapping stories and even combining bureaux. Not only will this help the papers save money, but it frees up time for reporters to cover issues not being covered elsewhere. In the current economic climate, this trend will continue, but not without its effects on the industry.
Some traditional news hounds would argue that two papers covering similar stories in a certain region add depth and uncover more facts that may otherwise be lost to readers. This may be true. But is it really worth having two reporters on the scene to gather one or two more different pieces of information when there may be other stories elsewhere? And what about the multitude of photojournalists that different organizations send to press conferences and like events where the story subjects don't move much? Is it really worth sending all of those photogs? Couldn't photos just be shared? Without a doubt, these are questions that cash-strapped publishers and editors are asking themselves right now. Expect to see more cross-corporation cooperation in 2009.
IS PRINT REALLY THREATENED?
We've said it before and we'll say it again: print is not going to die. But, considering the trend of the past year, print's reach will be considerably reduced, at least in Western nations.
During the last few months of 2008, publishers' struggle to maintain the high costs of printing and distribution has become apparent. In October, The Christian Science Monitor, a beacon of quality American journalism, announced that it would stop printing its daily edition. In mid-December, the Detroit Free Press, which recently won a broadcast award, decided to limit home delivery to Friday's and weekends while trimming the daily single-copy sale paper to one section. Most recently, the American Society of Newspaper Editors is considering dropping "paper" from its name.
What do these cuts mean for the news"paper" industry? As circulations drop across the Western world, it could mean substantial savings. Weekday papers often make a loss to begin with, so cutting the costs of printing those papers should cover any lost advertising revenue in those same papers.
Perhaps the question publishers should be asking themselves is "Do cutbacks on the paper product matter to readers"? Well, cutbacks will certainly change the face of the newspaper industry. But in the end, media houses are in the news "distribution" business, not the news"paper" business. As long as their news is published, media houses will have completed their service to the public.