2009: The Year of Newspaper Evolution?

Newspaper owners and those who manage them face probably the most challenging year any of us can remember, that much most people will accept.

Like the last, we will undoubtably see job losses, cuts, integration, lower pay deals, union discord and bullishness from shareholders.

But from the smart ones we should also see innovation, evolution and a desire to get back to the core fundamentals of what newspapers are about – breaking great stories – be it online, video, audio or traditional print.

I spent a deal of 2008 criticising decisions made by media companies: Trinity Mirror and the Herald and Times Group chief among them.

Part of that was because of what the end result was for employees, otherwise good and loyal workers, and all the emotion that goes with it.

But fundamentally it was because I disagreed with the way things were done, or appear to be going, for reasons of journalism.

Regular readers will know I find it difficult to square how to deliver quality journalism with having fewer boots on the ground. 

It just doesn't add up for me.

In my view it can be no mistake that part of the reason fewer people are buying newspapers is simply: they don't have to.

Editorially papers evolved a decade ago to introduce lighter content, tits, tittle-tattle and showbiz. We were told it was to woo white van man, stay at home mums, sassy female readers, the younger generation.

And in doing so serious news, politics and investigations became also rans dropped to the back of the book or squeezed into a nib on page two.

It may have worked for a while, but that was before the internet exploded with celebrity sites, came before YouTube and Google took over the world and the TV in the living room and online gave you 24-hour a day bite sized nuggets.

In the US, some 12.4 billion videos were viewed in November alone, an increase of 34% on the previous year. Forty per cent of them were viewed through Google accounting for 98% of the search engine's traffic.

That equates to the average user watching 273 minutes of online video throughout 2008.

At the same time, the Pew Research Centre found that the number of people now relying on the Internet as their primary news source has surged from 24% last year to 40%. That's 5% more than the number of people relying on newspapers as their first port of call.

And who can blame them? After all much of the content is available for free, often it will be more up to date and increasingly accompanied by images, video, interactivity through comments and ratings, send to a friend and so on.

So isn't it time to reinvent the wheel, or at least beat it into shape?

When I question the wisdom of cutting staff so drastically to prop up falling advertising markets it is with this in mind. 

Quality reporting, however you might dress up the numbers, falls if you slash the number of people involved. And eventually, the reputation of the title goes with them.

It means people no longer have a need or desire to purchase one title over another if they blend into blandness together.

They lose their USPs.

So could resources not instead be re-invested into the core product – news – so that titles are not the same as each other.

Pick up a Scottish newspaper on any given day and much of the content is just the same, only repackaged. So much so you could almost certainly bring out a paper from agency and wire copy alone. It would serve its purpose.

It wouldn't be great, it wouldn't set agendas, it wouldn't break news.

What, though, if you armed an editorial department with a dedicated investigations team – perhaps working across titles and platforms?

A kind of 'Insight' team for Scotland, with video of investigations, great photography and good, hard-nosed copy, podcasts, YouTube….

Break the story in the week, tell how it was done in the Sunday, and promote the extras online – or vice versa.

The same could be done with campaigns, getting right into the heart of the community. Back to basics in some ways, only armed with technological know-how to supplement the printed product.

And don't give necessarily give it all away for free.

Carry news, showbiz and run-of the mill tales for free online – but reserve the juicy bits for premium content subscribers online and DRM protect it – and also for those readers who actually buy the paper.

I've had this debate many times with colleagues in bars or over coffee. 

Some nodded in agreement, others perhaps understandably, looked at me as if I was daft, been out the game too long.

So imagine my glee when I read this piece by Peter Wilby in yesterday's Media Guardian.

He quotes for Daily Express editor Richard Addis as blogging: "More people want to understand; fewer people want to be titillated .. when things go wrong, you look for wisdom."

Wilby points out, correctly, that when my old boss Piers Morgan tried the same after 9/11 with the Daily Mirror, sales nosedived.

But maybe he was simply ahead of his time in accepting there would be a finite number of people interested in his product, and that he had to cater for their tastes explicitly, else risk losing them altogether too.

Else why bother reporting the crisis in Gaza as many have this week, why put video footage online, risk the lives of reporters and photographers. People have an insatiable appetite for proper news. Always have, always will.

Perhaps paper circulations will bottom out as internet hits rise. There may be no way to stop the downward spiral as newspapers exist.

So maybe they need to become necessities again, to woo the reader back, rather than simply expecting readers to buy them obligingly. 

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