Tuesday, November 25, 2008

News not on paper.

A post on the 10,000 Words blog titled 6 Newspaper Sections Rendered Obsolete By The Web raises a very interesting question. Has the Internet age made newspapers unnecessary? To answer that question let's first look at the history of the news business itself.

I am not going to delve into the age before newspapers because information back then was quite unreliable and got from place to place at the pace of a comatose tortoise. Unless something happened at the next town, it might be weeks or even months before you heard the news. And by then it might already be too late to do anything.

Eventually this situation was rectified by the invention of the printing press. This, in turn, lead to newspapers which covered various events and got these reports out to people somewhat quickly. However, these same newspapers still took a while to get from city to city. So, if you did not reside in a metropolitan area, by the time you read the paper it was already ancient. Also, not all the news made it into the paper.

Fast forward a little bit and telegraph along with railroads arrived on the scene. Now the distances that were impossible to traverse quickly no longer seemed so impossible and did not stand in the way of the news. A reporter, who was able to roam freely, could cover a story and then send it, using the "wireless," to his editor. And after the newspaper was printed it could be delivered to the readers by rail. So, if you did not reside in a metropolitan area, by the time you read the paper it was no longer ancient, merely old.

The next technological development that altered the news business was the invention of the radio. This was a huge step forward because it lead to stories being covered in real time by reporters right on the scene. An infamous example of this is the Hindenburg crash at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in 1937. But, despite the invention of live coverage, the newspaper business continued at the same pace as before.

This brings us to the invention of television which gave us the ability to see the story instead of just hearing about it while a reporter commentated the events as they happened. Another byproduct of television was the nightly news, a recap of the day's news that was broadcast several hours before newspapers could even hit the stands. Despite these developments the newspaper business continued, at a lesser pace perhaps, but it continued nonetheless.

The televised news lead to the birth of the twenty four hour news channels and now you could see the world in action. The reporters were scattered around the globe covering it like a blanket and bringing stories from all over right into your living room. And yet the newspapers remained in business. Somehow, with all the news that was fit to be shown live, there was still room for articles, columns, and photo spreads. Somehow the people who had the news piped into their living room still wanted to read the newspaper.

And now we are in the age of the Internet which gave rise to blogs allowing ordinary people to publish their own take on the news instead of being force fed the thoughts and opinions of the pundits, columnists, and talk show hosts. These so-called Citizen Journalists are now giving the newspapers a run for their money because as a solo reporter/publisher a blogger can cover the story and then put it on the Web without first getting it approved, or even turned down, by an editor.

Newspapers also face huge competition from blogs and bloggers because they have not embraced the Internet the way they ought to in order to stay competitive in this instant age. Majority of newspapers simply have a website on which they display an electronic version of their printed copy without embracing all the wonderful things a newspaper can do on the web.

One thing that a newspaper can do to enhance its site is to have staff blogs hosted on it. This will draw people to the site and provide content other than the already outdated stories. Another is to create a discussion board for the readers so people can comment on the news and post their opinions. This can even replace letters to the editor which would free up space for more advertising.

There are a lot more ways a newspaper can embrace the Web and thereby provide something other than a paperless version of itself, but the important point here is that in the Web 2.0 age newspapers need to evolve beyond the stagnant state they have been in since they have been invented. Sure there have been technological improvements which made the newspapers better and faster, but now they are at a point were, if major changes are not made, they could become obsolete.


xep44 said...

Had an email conversation with a reporter from Chicago Tribune yesterday.
A great writer, she admitted to me that she thought journalism was beyond saving.
I said her concerns were understandable, but I think journalism will be around forever. It'll just look completely different than it does right now. There are more than a handful of Web sites out there talking about this situation. Unfortunately, the "upper crust" of the newspaper hierarchy is not reading it. Or they are reading it and refusing to accept the reality.