Rupert Murdoch recently stated that the doomsayers predicting the end of the newspaper industry are off the mark. According to him, online readers also need news form a source that they can trust, and that’s what newspapers have always been doing. He agreed though, that newspapers would have to change from the ‘one size fits all’ approach to cater to readers’ demands. He mentioned his plans for WSJ, to offer three tiers of online content: free news, a subscriber-level service, and a third “premium service” of reader-customizable “high-end financial news and analysis.”

The newspaper, or a very close electronic cousin, will always be around. It may not be thrown on your front doorstep the way it is today.

On the whole, I tend to agree with him. However, I also feel that newspapers would be missing the point,  if they see this as just a change of platform. Its a mindset change, not just in terms of news delivery, but also in the way they approach business. After all, even the biggest names, like NYT , Gannett (publisher of USA Today) , are not in the pink of financial health.

Before we get to that, a few varied ‘heritage media’ (print) trends. On one hand, we have publications like Christian Science Monitor and PC Magazine and many others switching to a primarily online only presence. On the other hand, the NYT opened up a couple of APIs, releases an AIR based news reader, the Guardian buys PaidContent, and offers full text RSS feeds, the Financial Times’ new site design resembles a blog, and some magazines are even rolling out Instant Messaging functionality. Over to India, Live Mint and Business Standard have recently launched podcasting (via WATBlog), India Today added Cosmopolitan to their existing list of digital properties and Business Standard has launched a branded Instant Messenger – BS Buddy (via Medianama). In essence, newspapers and magazines seem to be looking a bit more seriously at making the transformation from real to virtual.

So this is a good question to ask – what’s the next step for news? To start with, they could take a good look at this list of 10 things that every Newspaper/Magazine site must do. This itself would be completely against a few things that they’d consider sacred – most notably, link sharing and responding to comments. Broadly, I’d imagine it to be a two pronged approach

  • figure out how to deliver their content on digital platforms, and that might even lead to changes in the kind of content they gather, and the way they gather it.
  • figure out a business model that can leverage the content they have – subscription/ advertising/ both.

First the content aspect. A lot of publications have been experimenting with citizen journalism. They’d do well to check out tools like CoverItLive. Instead of randomly adding a ‘blog’ section to the website, make it work. Get enthusiastic journalists to blog. Get regular bloggers to do guest columns on specific topics of their interest. Promote them and the content they add to the site. This would help them being aggregators who also serve niche interest communities. What is equally important is to bring about a systemic approach to making journalists regard their story as just a start, and getting them to take ownership of making it a conversation. There are advantages in it for them – new story ideas as well as a better understanding of their readers. Yes, Twitter can help in the conversations too. These changes in news gathering techniques might very well change the quantity and quality of newsroom staff. This makes a great case study.

The business aspect. I read a a very insightful article on how the entry of print publications into the digital medium will change the balance of power and wealth in the link economy. This process has already started. But before that, I think they have to see themselves as news sources, rather than just the newspaper on the web. This would influence how and where they position their ads, and would help them deliver better value to advertisers, as well as readers. While on this subject, I think online ad networks that include newspapers (with various editions and publications) along with independent blog/ blog networks that complement/add on to their content, might make sense. I remember NYT making a sort of conglomerate in association with 3 other newspapers, sometime back. There are other business models too. For example, there are community funded reporting services like Spot.us. (via RWW) Do check out this link for a very radical approach.

Though readership of dailies (with very few exceptions) continue to drop, I don’t think newspapers are in their death throes in India. But should they wait for that? A good brand takes some time to build. There’s a reason why more people in India visit Rediff and Yahoo and even the web 18 properties than Indiatimes/ Times of India group properties. I’m hoping to see something like Instablogs join the big league soon. Brand loyalty in the real world need not translate into brand loyalty in the virtual world, especially when you’re dealing with a (by now) commodity called news. And as newspapers would know from their real experiences, once readers are used to a certain way of consuming content, it’s difficult for a competitor to sneak in. It would pay well to learn from mistakes – of those aborad who might have waited too long to transform. After all, what doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily have to make you stronger. And I’m not sure if newspapers would like to be part of the thin end of the long tail of news consumption, with pure play web entities occupying the head.

until next time, save paper, save the environment :)