September 11, 2011 4:59 pm

Turning the page: newspapers face the future

The digitalisation of the media is no longer just about the migration towards online news.

Tablets, apps and mobile sites are all part of the package that must be provided by modern news organisations whose century-old business models have been undermined by a dissolution of advertising backbone and a transformation in consumer habits.

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IN Future of Communications 2011

But media experts say that as newspapers and magazines innovate to meet the demands of the new consumer, the transformation should be seen as an evolution, not a threat.

Part of this evolution, they say, is the way readers can now source, monitor and scrutinise what they read online.

For the conscientious consumer, the communications revolution is empowering as much as it is confusing, according to Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust, an independent monitor of standards in UK journalism.

Websites such as Churnalism.com, which was launched this year, allow users to distinguish between what they read as original journalism or news that has simply been taken from press releases or other news services. In an age of information abundance, such tools provide “a bottom-up service to the public”, says Mr Moore.

“In such an environment, it makes sense to give people the tools to find things out for themselves, and to provide more context, transparency and accountability,” he says.

A more traditional arena that has been subject to the digital revolution is local newspapers. Websites have flourished as the first port of call for readers who want instant and in-depth access to news in their areas. During the recent riots in England, the Express and Star, a Wolverhampton-based local newspaper website, had 853,000 home-page views on one day, far above its usual traffic. The town has a population of less than 240,000.

The trend was mirrored across England, where a surge in online hits was complemented by extended print runs and twice-daily editions.

“There are countless examples that show that people first turn to the local press when something big happens on their patch,” says Lynne Anderson, communications director at the Newspaper Society, which represents the UK’s regional and local newspapers.

Interaction is the byword of the new communications age as consumers create and mix content with established sources. Often derided, this “citizen journalism” is changing communication in the UK in much the same way as it did in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian uprising.

As part of their coverage of the riots, many local websites featured picture galleries, live blogs and videos – content produced by residents to provide a depth of coverage that could not be found on most national news platforms.

But the fact that most people no longer pay to pick up their local newspaper every day is indicative of changing reader expectations about the print medium.

Whereas a newspaper was the easiest way to get hold of a range of information in one place in the past, digitalisation will favour greater specificity and reader interaction, say analysts.

“The physical [newspaper] product was the perfect aggregator for the pre-internet age. But the sheer breadth of their content now looks out of touch with what audiences want,” says Douglas McCabe, media analyst at Enders Analysis.

As news organisations grasp the reality of the communications revolution, the key to success may lie in providing a number of different products for a range of readers.

Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspaper, has said in the past that the broadsheet – which has seen its circulation drop by 9.5 per cent since July last year – will become “more Newsnight than News at Ten” by focusing on context and longer analysis rather than news reporting, which is increasingly being accessed in real time online.

Despite this logic, there are no guarantees that consumers are willing to pay for this form of journalism, says George Brock, professor and head of journalism at City University in London. “If it was easy and profitable, the move would have been decisive and happened long ago,” says Prof Brock, a former managing editor at The Times newspaper.

One area where the Guardian may see success is its plan to “act as curators” of online content, using its highly successful internet brand as a network to connect readers with other online commentators and bloggers.

“The media have always been about bringing information together. What is changing now is the value being placed on editorship and reaching the balance between curating and journalism,” says McCabe at Enders Analysis.

A thriving model of a traditional news organisation in the digital world is the Daily Mail.

The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday boast distinct but separate identities from MailOnline, their online counterpart. The two newspapers have retained the populist content their paying readers want. MailOnline, however, has focused on showbusiness and celebrity news, usually accompanied by a plethora of revealing pictures.

“The Mail’s competition isn’t only other newspapers, but also magazines – such as OK! and Hello! – and one very successful website above all: Gawker,” says Mr Brock. “Their ambition seems to be to build up a huge web reader base and to find ways to make income from that later when the readers are habitual and loyal.”

MailOnline recorded nearly 73m global unique visitors in August and is the world’s second most popular English-language newspaper website after The New York Times. Its success in retaining strong circulation numbers while establishing an unrivalled web presence is proof that the question of “whither newspapers” is not as bleak as many within the industry have predicted.

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