February 02, 2007

A Level Media. New Media: Will the Web Replace Newspapers?

Will the Web Replace Newspapers?

Introduction: The Changing Mediascape 

The seemingly exponential increase in the influence of the internet especially since the onset of Web 2.0 with its emphasis on collaborative approaches, social networking and filesharing has dramatically changed the global mediascape. The emphasis of new media is currently towards 'User Generated Content' even for news where many Americans are using 'Digg'. The music industry is in immense turmoil as the market has opened up dramatically and the industry gatekeepers have, for the moment at least, been circumvented. Commercial TV is under serious threat in the UK as advertising budgets continue to migrate to the web. The recent Ofcom report in the UK on radio (2006) specifically notes that there is a shift away to the internet and to iPods. It must be remembered as well that the target audience for an advertiser instantly becomes global once it is on a website instead of merely national. What then is the future of the newspaper in this rapidly changing global media  environment? Below David Bowen a web effectiveness consultant has contributed an interesting article to the Financial Times on this issue.

"The relationship is not symbiotic, it is parasitic. And the parasite could be killing the host".

David Bowen Financial Times January 18 2007 (a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co) puts forward the case that both newspapers and the web need to be concerned. A parasite which ultimately kills its host is a 'Necrotroph' and Bowen seems to think that this summarises the relationship between the web and newspapers. 

The web is a secondary medium. Mr Obama’s site may be a pleasing way of getting his message across – but only if people find it via a primary medium.

What do I mean by primary medium? Simply, one that people will turn to themselves, or be exposed to without effort – a high visibility medium, you might call it. Newspaper articles or advertisements, television reports or commercials, radio ditto, hoardings by the side of the road. Indeed the billboard on a busy road probably wins the visibility prize: it is difficult not to see.

The vast majority of websites are low visibility, and I include those with massive traffic such as YouTube and MySpace, as well as every blog. Mr Obama’s video is on YouTube, the video sharing network, but it is not high visibility. You will find it only by seeking it out, or by being told about it by a friend. You will not trip over it as you might while watching television, reading a paper or driving along.

The big problem for newspapers is that advertising is shifting to the web, but what will happen to the web if newspapers start closing down? It will lose important signposts, and will itself become less valuable. The relationship is not symbiotic, it is parasitic. And the parasite could be killing the host.

David Bowen's point comes down to a key issue that it is hard for people to find things on the web and as such they need signposting. Bowen draws on the example of the Directgov site which had an advertising campaign in 2006:

A four week advertising campaign is not going to change the way people behave. It’s a start, but I think we need to be told over and over and over again that there is this very useful thing called the web, and we will be very pleased with what it can offer us. (My emphasis).

Bowen's point is a fair one and in the short term he may be right, but changing habits of quite literally a lifetime for older people is one which is a cultural thing. What about today's 16 year old? The first place they go to is the web for anything they do. They might well read Metro on the train but they certainly don't buy newspapers. As Web 2.0 proliferates more and more services will develop and the ill used 'Directgov' of today will be hosting forums about the effectiveness of the recycling services offered by various councils before long.

There seems little doubt that as mobile broadband wireless services and the gadgets to access this develop and become more effective it will become increasingly easy to access specialist sites. Currently there are generational issues and technological issues which are reducing 'affordance' but both of these are changing quite fast. There are now far more 70 year olds in PC World than there used to be.

I have found many A level students are using forums to try and get peer advice on their media and film studies research projects and we can certainly expect forums, Wikis, blogs etc to increasingly provide peer experience of everything from cars to councils. If you have an area of special concern accruing RSS feeds and Podcast feeds will be something which everybody does. I would be expecting local councils websites to be delivering podcasts / vodcasts / RSS updates about changes in goods and services. These will take the place of the signposts which David Bowen talks of.

Are their still digital divides?

Naturally all this will take time to develop but the internet as we now know it is only about 15 years old. Broadband has only recently become commonly available at a reasonable price. To me the issue is still one about digital divides. Communications experts such as Murdoch and Golding have for a long time been commenting on the communications gap between classes and the relative cost of information to incomes. Currently having or not having broadband access in the domestic environment is now the fundamental issue here. As William Mitchell has noted it is the number of bits which you can access and the speed which you can access them which will increasingly become the marker of inequalities in the information age.

Changing Media Models 

Currently I don't see an end to newspapers and I'm not really convinced by developments like Digg in which people vote on the top stories. Newspapers have already shifted into becoming multimedia organisations which seems to be the expected outcomes of the processes of convergence. This is great. Now I've become a train commuter for a few weeks this gives me a chance to go through the newspapers. If I see something I'm interested in then rather than cutting it out I can 'signpost' it to students and assume it will be available on the web.

This fits in with Bowen's model, but prior to this I just used to buy a couple of papers a week. Usually both on a Saturday. The Financial Times and the Independent. I gave up on the Guardian because I hated Julie Birchall and you needed a fork-lift truck to take it away, whereupon most of it went straight in the bin. Talking with colleagues most people would rather buy the separate bits from these weekend behemoths.That would need a change in advertising models and perhaps distribution models. 

Looking at the habits of many commuters the lap-tops are out with people polishing thier Powerpoints and spreadsheets in the morning, not accessing the news media whilst others flick through 'Metro'. There is now increasing resistance to the 'free newspaper' phenomenon on ecological grounds and I can't believe that many people take any notice of the adverts at that time of day. The return journey is different. Perhaps that is the time for accessing the media. The local evening paper in a station is unlikely to be of much interest to a commuter living 50 or 100 miles away. Perhaps Virgin will soon be putting screens into the back of the seats then you can just log onto your favourite sites which you may subscribe to.

The fact is that there are now a multiplicity of ways in which to enjoy the media and increasingly fragmented markets. Those companies based upon newspapers will change their business model or die. This appears to be the issue with the American Tribune Group. It is suddenly very hard to value a Newspaper organisation at a time of radical transition in media distribution models. If there is an unconvincing web strategy perhaps that is the underlying explanation for a lack of bidders. (I can't tell you the rest of the story as I haven't subscibed to the FT site!):

So far, on the eve of the extended deadline set last year, no bidder has stepped forward to signal they are keen buyers of Tribune, the second-biggest US newspaper group, which owns titles including the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. (My emphasis).

Given that there is a comforting physicality about a newspaper which has a throwaway aspect to it I suspect that we will increasingly get thinner newspapers physically and richer websites in terms of content. It may be that the the real newspaper acts as a signpost in the way in which Bowen suggests is needed but the web model of what is accessible and to whom is what is still being worked upon.

The Financial Times approach is making the most of 'the Long Tail' where full articles and archived articles are available to subscribers which seems a very sensible way to go. The proliferation of adverts next to the web pages of newspapers will continue to get more sophisticated and more targeted.

Perhaps some newspapers will experiment with 'lite' versions which are specifically designed as websignposts. Full versions at weekends. Given that the audiences are increasingly global this should mean that newspapers will probably be with us for a long time but it does seem likely that there will be fewer of them and that they are likely to function differently with the main content and income generation streams increasingly focused upon the web.

If you are a football fan in the Phillipines then getting the current stories about Man United by a commnetator you like, which would previously been impossible is now pretty easy. The fact that English is the lingua franca of the web of course favours English speaking commentators and clubs however we could easily see 'papers' employing more translators. There are lots of possibilities but I don't see the pessimistic necrotroph option which Bowen is worried about as one of the likely outcomes of advertising migrating to the web.

I for one wouldn't lament the passing of 'The Sun' but Murdoch has perceptively already brought up 'My Space' with commentators rapidly being forced to swallow their initial criticisms that he had overpaid. News International has clearly got its revenue streams worked out. 


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