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I know, it’s hardly unique to blog about the future of newspapers these days but hear me out!

I was approached quite some time ago (last fall, I think) about contributing an essay to an upcoming issue of Canadian Notes and Queries, a literary/culture magazine. The issue is a special one – taking a long look at important issues of Canadian culture and what they may look like in 25 years.

I wrote most of the piece in one caffeine-fuelled session at a local fair trade coffee house back in October. It was edited through November and finally published at the start of February (though the magazine’s website hasn’t been updated yet – ironic, really, given the subject matter).

Now, as many of your probably realize, some freakin’ substantial things have happened since October – the economy tanked, several newspapers have gone under and Canada’s largest media chain has been pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.

Still, upon flipping through my copy of CNQ, I was pretty pleased with how my arguments mostly still apply.

So, without (much) futher ado, here’s the article as it appears in the magazine (I think – can’t recall if more changes were made after this version). I encourage you to hit a newsstand and pick up a paper copy, though, as all the articles provide excellent food for thought.

NEWSPAPERS

By Joe Boughner

Conventional wisdom says that the dead-tree media, as bloggers have dubbed printed newspapers, will soon join the ranks of 8-track and 33 RPM vinyl records. In many ways, the writing is already on the wall-or, rather, the web. No self-respecting paper of record, after all, dares compete without at least an online version of their publication. All but the most resolute also offer some sort of updated web-exclusive content throughout the day (though these updates are often little more than repackaged newswire copy) and most major newspapers have even begun experimenting with blogs, podcasts and comment forums.

But perhaps the dead-tree death watch is focused on the wrong patient. With newspaper circulation numbers dropping across the country, particularly in the increasingly important youth demographic (tomorrow’s news consumers), the question isn’t when print newspapers will flat-line but whether the news organizations behind them will survive.

 

The life of a journalist has already undergone fundamental shifts. No longer does a reporter go off to cover his or her beat, file a story or two by deadline and knock off. Reporters today are expected to file throughout the day to feed the paper’s website. Many are also asked to keep blogs. Columnist Christie Blatchford (formerly of the CanWest chain, now at the Globe and Mail) went so far as to declare “the unofficial end to journalism as I know it” when, during the Beijing Olympics this summer, her colleague Matthew Sekeres “said the five words I have most come to dread: ‘I’m going to blog this.’”

Blatchford’s opposition to blogging is based on a number of factors, but her arguments can be boiled down to one point: blogging’s speed is incompatible with the scope and careful nature of good journalism. This trend toward speed started long before blogs, of course, but the impact was mitigated by the inherent differences in the media that existed at the time. Television news, for example, brought an immediacy and visual impact that newspapers couldn’t match, but that same technology limited the depth and analysis readers could find in newspapers. Cable news networks competed the only way they knew how: by never punching out. Quantity would henceforth conquer quality. As an innovation, the 24-hour news cycle not only upped the ante for newspapers trapped by publication schedules, but created a seemingly insatiable desire for around-the-clock coverage.

The arrival of blogs and citizen journalism are part of this development, but they bring with them a different set of challenges. Quasi-professional print media existed before, from zines and sensationalistic yellow press publications, but self-publishing web-based technologies like blogging platforms Blogspot and WordPress now give the independent and amateur press the ability to reach a much wider audience with an outwardly professional-looking product. OhmyNews, an internationally focused and collaboratively built news site, is populated entirely by citizen journalists. Its somewhat-ragged layout notwithstanding, the site looks much like any other major online news site. How is a reader to know they are reading the work of citizen journalists? Moreover, should it matter?

This effect is compounded by the use of RSS feed readers or other content aggregators such as iGoogle or My Yahoo. These technologies take advantage of the ability to divorce content from its original format to present information from across the internet with a common look and feel, usually defined by the user. An article from the New York Times, syndicated over RSS, looks exactly the same as a blog post from a heavily partisan blogger. Never mind that the blogger is thoughtful enough to post a disclaimer on his site that explains his bias, the technology takes the content away from that site and presents it in a uniform way. And this hits on the single greatest threat to the traditional news organization: democratization

This isn’t to say that a blogger, or a citizen journalist, doesn’t have anything useful to say. Far from it. One of the benefits of democratizing content creation is that previously overlooked viewpoints have a chance to be recognized. But not every viewpoint deserves to be treated the same way. There’s a reason that newspapers are, for the most part, trusted entities: most journalists are professionals trained to present information in an objective way. Even the best-intentioned citizen journalist likely lacks the preparation, resources (such as copy editors and fact checkers) and professional obligation to do so. As web 2.0 strategist Ryan Anderson recently opined on Twitter, “trusting a citizen journalist is like hiring a citizen plumber. Some are as reliable as the pros, but there’s always more risk.”

But what happens when journalists turn bloggers? What happens when they are forced to act like citizen journalists, filing incomplete stories to the website to feed the demand for instant news?

The inevitable result is that the quality of journalism suffers, media skeptics get more fodder for their critiques and journalists unwittingly feed the “I can do this better” mentality that feeds citizen journalism in the first place. As the mainstream media try to beat the bloggers and the citizen journalists at their own game, the likelihood only grows that the inevitable demise of the mainstream press becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why? Because people will never pay for something they can get for free. Newspapers are and forever shall be a business property. When the best argument in favour of a professional press-accuracy and standards-are increasingly tossed aside in favour of immediacy, then the differences between citizen and professional journalism are less clear.

So what will happen to newspapers in 25 years? There are two possible answers and the first doesn’t take much explanation. They will expire. A few stalwarts will likely hold out beyond 2033 but they will be resource-starved and appeal only to a dwindling audience. Advertisers will see the trend of declining circulation continue and adjust their spending accordingly. With declining ad revenues and the pressure to make online content free, newspapers will no longer be (if they ever were) sound business investments.

The more optimistic answer, however, is that newspapers will become sophisticated news-gathering and news-analyzing organizations. Mastheads will shrink and the focus will turn away from on-the-spot reportage toward investigations that present issues in a more complex, more nuanced light. Print versions will still be available on subscription but the vast majority of readers will receive the content online through RSS feeds or direct-email subscriptions free of charge. Multimedia content will enrich the articles, which be limited not by column inches but rather the number of words it takes to properly and fairly assess a topic.

Achieving the latter won’t be easy but newspapers have proven surprisingly resilient in the past. The challenges will be twofold: how can newsrooms evolve from an editorial and news-focused standpoint and how can news corporations evolve from a business standpoint to achieve a new model of sustainability?

From an editorial standpoint, professional journalists will have to accept that on-the-spot newsgathering is no longer their bread-and-butter. The very same eyewitnesses that journalists would have previously relied on are going to be increasingly likely to have already blogged about their experiences, posted some photos to Flickr or Facebook and joined a larger discussion on Twitter or an online discussion forum. But because the facts of what happened in any given moment will become less important than the shared impact of the event on a broader contextual scale, journalism with be more important than ever.

What has historically set print journalists apart is their ability to take the time to put stories in context. Unburdened by the need to find the right art, not pressed to file an update for the next hour’s news cycle, newspaper journalists were able to spend the time to interview more sources, dig up relevant background information and file an article that provides context, nuance and a more complete picture.

Rather than compete with the instant gratification of bloggers and citizen journalists, in other words, the professional journalist of the future will use these resources the same way they use face-to-face interviews and statements by officials. Over time certain bloggers will become trusted sources and others will be exposed as unreliable-just as regular sources are today.

Wire services such as the Canadian Press, Associated Press and Reuters, will continue to play a key role on this front too, ensuring professionally-trained journalists are available to shape, rather than set off, breaking stories. They too will play more of quality-control role but with the benefit of knowing the context from which the first-person reports emerge. Enterprising news outlets may even deputize certain reputable bloggers and provide them space on their websites. These bloggers, however, won’t also be reporters and the line between the first-draft blogged content and the more complete, more complex analysis done by the professional journalists will be well defined.

Lastly, content will be focused. The availability of information online means readers no longer need to turn to their local newspaper for information on what’s happening around the world. Certain outlets will inevitably decide to focus on global issues, but there will be many other niches. The important thing is to abandon the “everything to everyone” approach that so often leaves newspaper coverage an inch deep and a mile wide.

So if this is to be the new editorial direction of newspapers, how will they be funded? Journalists still need salaries and research budgets; newsrooms need resources and infrastructure to function. Part of the answer may lie in the reduced cost of producing news in this model. Print circulation will be greatly reduced and subscription costs could be adjusted to largely offset these costs. Advertising space would still be sold in the print versions, though obviously at a reduced rate given the smaller print runs.

The big challenge, though, is finding a way to generate revenue in the online model. Already most newspapers that initially adopted an online subscription model have had to abandon it, making all but the most specialized or archived content free. The answer may lie, in part, in banner advertising or sponsored (and clearly labeled as such) links, as many publications are already experimenting with. The specialized, focused nature of the content in this hypothetical modern newsroom may indeed prove to be the most useful development in the evolution of the business. Advertisers, whether they be online or in print, are more likely to pay premiums if you can demonstrate that they are reaching their target audience.

Readers, however, are getting more and more savvy. They are getting better at ignoring online advertising. This can be mitigated to some degree by seeking more targeted advertising-a reader is less likely to ignore relevant advertisements-but it may not be enough. To make up the gap, professional news outlets will need to get creative. Philanthropists and foundations may be more inclined to offer grants to outlets that can prove they are adding value by offering more insightful analysis of issues (indeed, many magazines are supported by foundations for this very reason). Public-radio-style pledge drives may also prove lucrative for outlets focused on specific content areas.

Bashing the traditional, mainstream media has become something of a sport for web 2.0 advocates. While newspapers should be applauded for trying to innovate and adopt some of the technologies that their fiercest critics rely on, it is too often being done at the expense of the quality, balanced reportage that formed the basis of the mainstream press’ reputation. Newspapers of the future, if they do indeed continue to exist, will stop trying to beat bloggers at their own game and instead use them as a resource, another tool in their storytelling toolbox.

Joe Boughner is an Ottawa-based writer, media analyst and web strategist. His blog, 42 Points on a Double Word Score, can be found at www.joeboughner.ca.