“No earthly reason” for newspapers to exist

I went to a talk last night about blogging which, as so often with talks about blogging, ended up being about newspapers. Karl Schneider, the development director at the incredibly successful B2B publisher RBI, said something that really struck a chord.

I asked whether content aggregators were essentially parasites (as the editor of the Washington Post claimed earlier this year) and Schneider launched a tirade on the newspaper format. He said that he could not think of a single reason why all the different elements of a newspaper would hang together on the internet. “There is no earthly reason why those things have to sit together in one place online,” he said.

He is, of course, right. There is no reason whatsoever that news, comment, puzzles, sport, quizzes, gossip and all the other elements that make up a newspaper should go together online. It made sense when newspapers were only printed on “dead trees” that this rather bizarre combination of elements would be bundled into one space and delivered onto your doorstep. But that is simply no longer the case.

Why would the Mail automatically be the best place online to get puzzles when there are specific puzzle sites out there? Why would the Sun’s sports coverage be better than individual bloggers who can bring together everyone else’s blogs? I just don’t know.

The worrying part of this for journalists is that the parts that we value – the serious news, the analysis, the investigative reports – have traditionally been subsidised by the more frivolous stuff elsewhere. So much of the great foreign coverage that we have had in this country over the past century has effectively been paid for by Agony Aunts and horoscopes. If all these lighter elements of papers can be used by then what money will be left to pay for the good stuff?

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5 responses to ““No earthly reason” for newspapers to exist

  1. That is a very good yet depressing point. Is it not that news organisations pay people to do this job professionally and to a high standard? For blogs etc people source more professional content than they might imagine, even for their ‘own’ ideas. If this all ceased to exist online, we could be left with some poor information that blurs the line between truth, fact and opinion.

  2. georgia amson-bradshaw

    Hmm…. I take your/Schneider’s point, but I don’t entirely agree – I certainly don’t think that the move to online news will spell the death of the collated newspaper format. The points that I think the argument misses are twofold. Firstly, on a purely pragmatic level, people are lazy. I’m lazy. I want my crossword, my goss and my news on one site if possible. In fact, rather than my shift to reading the news more online as opposed to in print making me diversify my sources, it’s probably made me use the sites that I do (mainly the guardian and the BBC) for more things than I used to before, so now for example, I’ll look for travel offers on the guardian whereas before I would only have looked at lastminute.com or something, because I am attracted by links that I see at the side of the page, taking me to other areas of the website. I can’t really be arsed to sift the internet finding a crossword of the type that I like, or a gossip blog that suits my sense of humour. I certainly could – but I don’t care enough about finding either one of those things from the massive amount of options available online to do the selection myself. I want someone else to do it. Maybe if I was a crossword obsessive I would bother, but I want a package put in front of me, that includes all the different elements of things that entertain me.

    This ties in to an interesting point that I read a few months back, that the totally open platform HTML based ‘World Wide Web’ is losing is popularity compared to semi-closed platforms like apps that use the internet for transport, but don’t use the browser for display. I know internet news websites are still on browsers, but the principle that makes an app popular is, I think, the same – basically is an enclosed, navigable, presentable mini-world, that you don’t have to do any work to use yourself. Unlike searching the web, whereby you are required yourself to be discerning (which takes a modicum of time and effort), an app that you have chosen, or a newspaper website has sifted out all the crap results for you. And the point is, you trust your chosen newspaper to do that selection for you. Which brings me on to my second point. People read particular newspapers not just because they want to read the news as you know, but because they have an ideological attraction. I am going to inherently trust any recommendations made by my chosen newspaper, or assume I will enjoy any puzzle they put in front of me more than something I’ve plucked randomly from elsewhere.

    Basically what I’m trying to say is people are lazy and biased – but that’s a good thing for newspapers who rely on having a loyal demographic. It’s the same reason I don’t believe the harbingers of doom who say the publishing world is over because people can now publish their own books more easily. Some people will defect to privately published books, of course, but mostly people like to have their reading directed by a higher authority that they trust because otherwise they have to read a lot of shit before they find anything good, and people really trust their chosen newspaper as a ‘higher authority’, because they have very strong ideological attachments to it and everything it says about them.

    • An interesting analysis and I think the loyalties argument is probably still the best card that the traditional media has got.

      On the laziness point, I accept that laziness is key. But that doesn’t mean that the newspapers inherently bring everything together best. Take your own example – the BBC. Now the BBC is not a newspaper, but on the web it is doing the role that a newspaper always did (i.e. bringing together all the different elements of a newspaper). This breaks the monopoly on papers doing this. Why, then, can’t someone else do these things better than everyone else?

      The really interesting case is people like Patrick Smith (@psmith on Twitter) who are basically doing aggregation on a mass scale. This isn’t journalism in any form, but brings together journalism from many other sources and displays it in a more accessible way to other sites. Now Patrick can do this at a fraction of the cost of the Telegraph and can link to all the best, say, crosswords on the web without having written any of them. The point I am trying to make is that on the internet you don’t have to create all the content to have it on your site – in many ways its better if you don’t. That breaks the traditional newspaper model.

  3. georgia amson-bradshaw

    Yeah, I see what you mean. But presumably someone like Patrick Smith can’t just lift the stuff off other websites and pass it off as his own – he needs to either post a link which takes people to the original page (in which case the newspaper still gets the benefit of the advertising revenue, etc) or at the very least credit the source. And as soon as someone is linked to the original page then the chances are that they will click around and get other stuff from the site.

    And once (as I imagine they will at some point) most/all newspapers put up paywalls, then it would become illegal for ‘freelance aggregators’ to use newspaper content on their websites, right, because that is breach of copyright. And a paid subscription will help ensure customer loyalty. And I know people think that a paywall will mean people defect to free blogs, and of course, some will, but I just don’t think everyone will. People trust organisations, not individuals, particularly for things like the news. And whilst a few individuals will have the capacity to write and report/trawl the net to collate content for free, that’s not a sustainable model for a comprehensive, international news reporting facility – I don’t envisage a scenario where everyone is getting their all their news from these lone bloggers.

    I don’t know, perhaps I’m wrong, but newspapers are a service, and a service that I think a majority of people do value (thus won’t want to compromise on, i.e. I don’t think many people would be happy with an information source if they feel they couldn’t trust it) and people are prepared to pay for the things they value. It’s a strange paradox, in fact, that people tend not to value the things they don’t pay for, so by providing their news free online for so long already, the newspapers have probably done themselves a disservice, by being complicit in the suggestion that their reporting is of the same value as that of a blogger.

    If online news had had to be paid for from the start, everyone would be going around thinking that there was a reason that they were paying for their online news, which was that it is better than free blogs. As it is, they will have a harder time convincing people of that now. I think it’s possible though, for the reasons I outlined above – that institutions have more authority than individuals, have a greater capacity for comprehensive reporting, etcetc. The same reasons that you are allowed to quote published books in your essays, but aren’t supposed to quote wikipedia!

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