10 obvious things about the future of newspapers you need to get through your head

  1. It’s not Google’s fault. Get over it, professor. Blaming search engines is like blaming the library. “Oh no, please don’t let readers actually find stories from my newspaper and then click through to my site to read them, anything but that!” Forget it.
  2. It’s not Craig’s fault. Newspaper classifieds suck and they have for years. Either develop simple database applications with photos and maps to let your users actually find what they’re looking for, or partner with a good third-party vertical who can. Anything less is a waste of your time.
  3. Your major metro newspaper could probably use some staff cuts. If you’re not writing about local news, your paper’s readers are probably getting what you do from somewhere else. Get over it. CNN and ESPN are not new, and nytimes.com wasn’t far behind. Write local. There are plenty of cooks and painters and poets in your neighborhood. Go out and meet them.
  4. It’s time to stop handwringing and start training. If your editors are still writing navelgazers about the cataclysmic changes in the business instead of starting training programs to teach some new tricks to you and that guy in the cubicle next door, that’s a problem. Stop whining and move on.
  5. You don’t get to charge people for archives and you certainly don’t want to charge people for daily news content. Pulling your copy behind walls where it can’t be seen by readers on the wider Web. Search rules. Don’t hide from it.
  6. Reporters need to do more than write. The new world calls for a new skillset, and you and Mr. Notebook need to make some new friends, like Mr. Microphone and Mr. Point & Shoot.
  7. Bloggers aren’t an uneducated lynch mob unconcerned by facts. They’re your readers and your neighbors and if you play your cards right, your sources and your community moderators. If you really play it right, bloggers are the leaders of your networked reporting projects. Get over the whole bloggers vs. journalists thing, which has been pretty much settled since long before you stopped calling it a “Web blog” in your stories.
  8. You ignore new delivery systems at your own peril. RSS, SMS, iPhone, e-paper, Blackberry, widgets, podcasts, vlogs, Facebook, Twitter — these aren’t the competition, these are your new carriers. Learn how to deliver your content across every new technology that comes into view on the horizon, and be there when new devices go into mass production.
  9. J-schools can either play a critical role in training the next generation of journalists, or they can fade into irrelevancy. Teach multimedia, interactivity and data, or watch your students become frustrated and puzzled as they try to get jobs with five clips and a smile.
  10. Okay, here comes the big one: THE GLASS IS HALF FULL. There is excellent work being done in the new world of online journalism and it’s being done at newspapers like the Washington Post and the Lawrence Journal-World and the San Jose Mercury News and the St. Petersburg Times and the Bakersfield Californian and all sorts of papers of all sizes. You don’t need millions of dollars or HD cameras or years of training to make it happen; all you need is the right frame of mind. So let’s stop writing and groaning about how things used to be different, and let’s start building our own piece of the new world of newspapers brick by brick, story by story.

[NOTE: This post was published in June 2007.  For an update on how newspapers are doing at these 10 things, check out the update, circa June 2008.]

143 thoughts on “10 obvious things about the future of newspapers you need to get through your head

  1. Great list, Ryan! I think there’s one missing item, and it’s a very obvious one — we not only need more local writing, stories and focus; we also need more local interaction. Not a “user generated” site that exists in a backwater of your server space, but a place where the public’s concerns and interests (not just their opinions) are brought out and discussed, with journlaists right there among them.

  2. Ditto on better J-schools. I feel as if I learned more by fiddling around with WordPress than I ever did in my “audio/visual newsgathering” class

  3. Go, Ryan, Go. Keep hitting ‘em. Don’t let up. And remind me them that when it comes to the Web, they’re not doing their homework. They aren’t listening to their own advice– to wear down the soles on those shoes finding stuff out.

    Great post.

  4. Big on No. 5.

    I tend not to return to media sites that want money for archives or recent news.

    Same goes for anything that wants me to “sign up” (i.e. input my name and e-mail address to view a page).

    Talk about a way to turn people off…

  5. Excellent post, Ryan. I couldn’t have said it better myself — and it takes a lot for me to admit that :-) You hit all 10 nails right on the head.

  6. I had an interview last year with the local paper. I was impressed by an expansive structure overlooking the river with so many employees. In the lobby a fleet of giggly girls chattered by, all suits and high heels. Happy security guards and a bored guy standing there waiting for people to buy classified ads. Soon to be replaced by PHP scripts. Anyway, the job was to simply cut-paste text from writers’ emails into a CMS! The whole experience was a real eye-opener.

  7. I’m with you 1000%, Ryan. My local paper is a prime example of what you’re talking about. Another thing that really would help them is to do more user testing, since that would be a way for them to become aware of the issues you’re raising. However that also applies to their print version as well. They make design changes that are beloved by the designers but degrade the user experience. Their latest gimmick is what I call the ‘pop-off’, with similar irritating qualities to the pop-up in online terms. It’s an extra outer page and a half that surrounds the paper and includes ads. The half comes at the front and intrudes on the front page at the left hand side. You think it’s some technical problem they’ve had with the printing. It really makes it very difficult to read the paper. Having already pointed out other usability problems the print version has, I can’t be bothered to waste my breath/ink on this one. However it illustrates their attitude of mind, certainly not user-centric.

  8. This is a very interesting topic. I think you are missing 1 key point: Personalization – I am no longer interested in reading news filtered by someone at the editors desk in Washington, New York or here in Minneapolis. I want my news personalized and customized… which services like pageflakes and netvibes do nicely. The next step is getting that personalization into people who are less web-savvy hands and onto dead trees to be read on the train, airplanes, in the bathroom etc.

    Thoughts?

    Solid article here more design focused on this topic:

    “The Future of News: How to Survive the New Media Shift”

    http://www.informationarchitects.jp/the-future-of-news-how-to-survive-the-new-media-shift

  9. The one thing I hate about “mainstream” news websites is they refuse to link out to sources or relevant information.

    They think they ‘create’ the news, that they are the source. That’s just not true. An un-sourced story is nothing if I post it on my blog, but if the LA Times posts it it’s holy writ.

    These large media organizations are still owned by a bunch of rich fucks who don’t have your interests at heart (because their interests conflict with yours) so it’s usually safe to assume that their content has a trick to it.

  10. Very true. Newspapers (and paper based publications in general) should wake and face the web-age or they would be extinct like the dinosaurs.

    Local news rules.

  11. If newspapers can’t charge for news, can’t charge for archives, can’t get revenue from classifieds … what exactly *is* their return on the investment of reporting news and putting it online in any format?

    Seriously, it’s a question that needs to be answered.

    Everyone seems to be calling on newspapers to do more: put their stuff on the web, get new skillsets, don’t forget RSS/email/podcasts/twitter/whatever, lead blog community projects, etc, etc. This list reads like a set of demands. But, oh yeah. No revenue allowed (#5)!

  12. I don’t know. I like the local angle, too, but surveys I’m reading, and people in my community tell me, they used to buy the local paper for the complete package, including foreign and national news. Now all they get is really crappy wire stories, reduced to about 5 grafs. The news services have cut back, too. Readers don’t have time to spend all day reading Web pages to try to assess the state of the world.

    Where do they learn about the war? About what the rest of the world thinks of the US? They sure aren’t getting it from TV.

    And as are as staff cuts–what do you think has been going on for the last five or so years? It’s been nothing but reduction of staff, usually older people–and no, not people who are automatically resistant to technology or new ways or doing things–but simply bodies that can be unloaded in the name of making the corporate side happy.

  13. Good list. I like it but I wonder if deep seated media people will respond with “Yeah, but….” It’s always a sign you’re in the wrong head space.

    I’m also, biasedly, interested in how interaction affects media. That’s a key part of blogging to me is not actually reporting but commenting. Then commenting on the comments. And linking.

    Networking and discussion. That’s worth a post too.

    Mick from Tangler.

  14. Yes, most newspapers could cut some staff, but not the huge cuts that are happening at papers like the San Francisco Chronicle (and probably the Mercury News).

    They may save some money now, but they are hurting themselves in the longterm.

    There also needs to be some research on what happens when a paper makes such deep cuts. Both a content analysis, but also interviews with people and groups to see the impact they see having fewer reporters and editors makes.

  15. Dead on. I was just debating much of this (starting with that Chronicle column) with a friend just out of j-school. This ought to spread farther than it has.

    I am curious, as someone not on American shores at the moment, where international news is going to end up. We can be an isolated bunch, us Yanks, and there is going to be something lost if papers don’t figure out how to maintain a presence elsewhere and present a larger view of the world. CNN/IHT can’t do everything, and I wouldn’t want my news coming from so few outlets anyway.

  16. Charging money for news has never been how newspapers make their money. Its the advertising and it always will be. (un?)fortunately newspapers have lost the monopolies they once had due to the internet.

  17. Love the topic. Couple of quibbles — the entire list is pretty much tied to point one and two – the economic model has shifted, all else follows. So saying “don’t blame” doesn’t really work. And color me hugely skeptical that local coverage is the answer…

  18. Wow. Thanks to everyone for the comments, links, e-mails, and for pushing this post up on some fun lists today.

    I’ll try to round up all the “11th obvious thing” links in the morning, but what I’ll say right now is that there are some awesome ideas right here in the comments.

    Is the changing economic model at the core of all of big media’s problems? I don’t think so. I think disintermediation has a lot to do with it, whether or not Craig or Google exist.

    Irrelevance isn’t tied to budget cuts – it seems to have arrived all on its own.

    I’d love to see some content analysis done on what categories of news fall out of a major metro after the sort of staffing cuts we’re seeing in San Francisco and Los Angeles right now.

    Keep the ideas coming…

  19. Great essay which got me to day-dreaming about a future newspaper where the ‘reporters’ were all really high school journalism teachers paid as part-timers by the newspaper to feed their student’s local stories into the paper’s website. The full time ‘reporters’ at the paper spit their time between 1) mini-editors for subgroups of the student by school or district. 2)taking the cream of the student articles and doing an in-depth article 3)mentoring the student while doing the in-depth 4)giving special presentations to school journalism classes 5)participating in seminars for all the journalism teachers and other journalist 6)taking ‘sabbaticals’ from all of the above and doing a travel blog (like Michael J. Totten) or a special interest report – there are a multitude of ideas for this part. . .I saw the feedbacks about how the profit model for newspapers is fading, how the online stuff is not filling in that vital part, how the corporate owners are squeezing the life out of them. Perhaps this day-dream is one way past that. It generates interest. Replaces all the school papers – while saving them money. Generates a new generation of newspaper readers (vital and NOT being done now), etc. Comments?

  20. http://www.perthnorg.com.au/ an example of doing news much much better. Newspapers, read it and LEARN!

    Hell I was in news publishing in the 80′s and I can tell you that way is still relevant but not the entire field any more.

    This is an excellent article and you newspaper directors and editors and newsroom heads could do a lot worse than READ IT and DO IT.

  21. On your point 3, for less educated people, I think the exact opposite is the case: They’re stuck with local news but don’t go to get info from somewhere else, even if it regards themselves. Especially, I assume, they don’t take the net as a helper to get informed. If they use it at all.

    Here at a labour exchange office in my neighbourhood, people are likely to know everything about what’s going on locally, but in matters being decided far more above — like what their duties and their rights are when coping with the officials in charge — they totally rely on that very officials in charge rather than being informed by themselves.

    Local news don’t cover that, but non-local apparently neither. Hence, for a newspaper, it might be worth to issue in-depth reports too, but, to agree with you, maybe closer related to local affairs.

  22. The list is so basic…but so relevant because far too many newspapers have yet to really grasp many of the things you’ve highlighted.

    As a former journalist, the items that resonated are smaller newsrooms and multi-faceted reporters. Any journalist who can’t get their head around the fact they will have to write, podcast, blog and do videos has no clue what’s coming down the pike pretty soon.

  23. Great work Ryan,

    I particually liked No’s 7 and 9,but most of all let’s stay pptimistic, there is a great deal of good work being done in newspapers.

  24. This is all spot-on, Ryan, kudos on this. I certainly hope more j-schools hear you on #8 and #9, too many of my peers are not getting enough training on the new skills they need to know. Sometimes it felt like my professors were still stuck in the last century, never mentioning the web or digital media. That’s simply not acceptable.

  25. Right on target and not just for newspapers but the entire media landscape, especially the “glass half empty v half full”…WAY too much time spent complaining and not enough time spent recognizing that knock is opportunity calling.

  26. Don’t charge for archives; don’t charge
    for daily news. What the heck are we suppose to charge for, and how can we fairly compensate those reporters you want more from?

  27. I think one of the biggest problems we need to work out is how to finance these primary news sources that power much of the blogosphere.

    First-person journalism is essential to the larger world of blog commentary, but how do the primary news sources get compensated when their information isn’t tied directly to an advertising source?

    Semantic web technologies such as RSS are designed to uncouple informational content from page layout. As a newspaper, how do you run a half-page ad opposite a local news story when the text of the story has been stripped of all formatting and syndicated out to every corner of the web? How do you monitize text content in a world of fair-use quotes and online commentary?

    I suspect the answer is – you don’t. Instead of waging a slow death through walled gardens and subscription fees for text articles, newspapers should switch to multimedia news formats such as audio and video which will allow them to embed advertising directly into their content.

  28. i sense a tinge of anger. who exactly is this commanding list directed at? far as i can tell, plenty of media sources are scrambling to create a vision for their online futures. (and parenthetically, doing that takes a lot of time and energy when you’re still trying to put out the news every single day — a point you don’t bother to touch upon.) you seem to understand that what you’re saying is not groundbreaking, and so would love to know who/what specifically spurned this rather irate post…

  29. In lieu of my promised “11th obvious thing” post, here are a few answers (mine) to questions (yours):

    Where, oh where, will we get the money to pay for all this if we don’t make readers pay to read the news?

    As always, advertising. Print ad revenue is falling and online ad revenue is climbing, but not enough to close the gap. We need to be more creative in the way we sell online advertising, and we need to start treating online ads as more than just an upsell from print.

    Why are you so angry?

    Hmm. Everyone reads the tone of my writing as they wish, of course, but if I’m “seething” as one person put it, it’s because I’ve been hearing and reading lots of “woe is me” around newspapers for the last week as news spread of staff cuts at the San Francisco Chronicle, cuts at the Los Angeles Times went into effect, Neil Henry’s piece blaming Google ran in the Chronicle, and on Friday rumors spread about possible staff cuts at the San Jose Mercury News.

    I’m just tired of hearing journalists complain about the state of the business while they sit on their hands not trying anything new.

    Meanwhile, I have a circle of online friends who are busting their asses in multimedia, interactivity, and data at papers of all sizes across the country, and I’d prefer their hard work didn’t go unnoticed by the folks too busy gazing at their navels.

    Why are you so U.S.-centric?

    I live in the U.S., was educated here, and work here. I study U.S. newspapers. I have plenty of friends from grad school who study international media, and I respect them greatly. If I had the time, I’d improve my Spanish and do some research on Venezuelan media and how events in Venezuela are covered by foreign reporters, including those from Reuters and the A.P. But I don’t have the time.

    If you question the relevance of this list to people from other countries, just read through the comments and trackbacks. My Japanese, German, and Portuguese aren’t that hot, but the people from the U.K. and Australia seem to dig it, so what can I say?

    Who in the newspaper business is listening?

    Well, I’m not just a “web hipster,” as one person put it, I work at a newspaper. And lots of the aforementioned friends who “get it” work at newspapers, too.

    So, journalists are listening. And they’re working hard to transfer the power of the press to the online medium.

    That’s our job.

  30. As a print journalist trying to make his way, late in life it has to be said, in online journalism, I recognise a lot of the points made in the list. I am both blogger and “mainstream” journalist, trying my best to be objective about both activities, and this item on a friend/collaborator’s site explains how it all came about in my own case:
    http://www.craigmcginty.com/news/2007/05/colin_rnadall_j.html

    But what worries me a little is that there are still countless students out there, certainly in the UK and France and I imagine in north America too, who want to study journalism but for whom it is not easy to see an employed future. I am not optimistic about ever being able to earn a living from my own sites – they are of rather more value to me as a shop window for whatever “mainstream” commissioning editors think I can do for them. Others will do it better, of course, but is blogging ultimately to be just a time consuming hobby and/or loss leader (yes, and contributing to democratic process) or does it have a place in offering some kind of career to those students?

  31. When newspapers open themselves up online to reader-submitted content (primarily comments), what commitment to they typically make to keeping said content?
    (rather than treating it as, well, fishwrap, of no lasting value)

  32. Hi, not sure I fully agree with point 7. Sadly a lot of bloggers are semi-literate and too many are concerned with shock value, and not greatly concerned with facts or fact checking. Does anyone know how many bloggers read newspapers? I don’t buy that bloggers are a paper’s readrers
    Also, re. Jeffery Henderson’s comments above – take a look at the Guardian’s website – it’s mainstream and incredibly well-linked, with one of the best blogs (Comment is free) of its kind.

  33. People keep forgetting that blind people might like to read the news too. Many sites have text which screen readers can’t convert to speech. Others are so loaded with graphics that it takes a long time to load. There are still papers which make it difficult to search for the news by topic or by keyword. I’m glad that Google at least has a search function like that. Many web pages have security codes which screen readers can’t interpret. Why can’t the webmaster put an audio clip so blind readers can hear the letters and numbers which need to be entered into the edit box? Ads also should be to-the-point and not manipulative. All I want to know is what the product is and why it might help me.

  34. Nicely argued. I would just add, as an eleventh point or expansion of your “local” point, that newspapers could add so much value to their communities by writing decent obituaries. Perhaps I am sensitized by living in LA, but the LA Times, with rapidly declining circulation, only prints obits of actors, celebrities and politicians (and soldiers killed in Iraq). I believe that a long-standing adage of the newspaper business is that “people like to read about themselves.” A decent obituary page is or will become a rich source of local history. I concede that most obituaries are written by the family, but the NYT is an example of how it can be done.

  35. I’m sorry, but the idea that modern reporters actually do fact checking is ludicrous. I’m a trained librarian and can usually blow holes in a good portion of so-called “news” stories in most reporter’s stories.

    I have a good friend who was a successful local reporter in the 1970s and 1980s who kept trying to tell me how good the vetting of stories are. I finally got her to admit that is something of the past.

    At best, the education of the average reporter or editor is now shown to be lacking in history, science, statistics, home economics, politics, etc. A cursory check of respected sources can quickly show that the average news story is sadly lacking. Even the well-respected NPR and PBS have allowed stories with nonsense lines such as “in the first time in history” when it was blatantly untrue. Just because something happened before 1900 doesn’t mean it never happened!

    Breadth of education is lacking in the majority of reporters. My husband has gotten to the point where he turns off the news if they start spouting nonsense – or distracting me if I’m yelling at the computer screen due to idiocy. Of course, the “paper of record” was never really accurate to begin with, they bought into yellow journalism as much as anyone – but I have my doubts that most of your readers even know the term if they are journalism school graduates.

    Pax,

    MLO

  36. It’s interesting to watch so many people shout at the captain, so to speak, as the ship goes down, on just how he sank the ship and what an effing idiot he is. These are all good ideas here … and ideas newspapers are currently adapting. There’s nothing Earth shattering here and nothing new. And nothing surprising either in hearing yet another blogger scream (with a long tail of other bloggers screaming “right on!”) about how they have all the answers and newspaper editors and writers are completely clueless.
    Frankly, I’d like to see a lot of y’all blowhards get out and get your hands inky. You have all the answers? Start chipping in! Nothing worse than a loud-mouthed know-it-all flapping his gums from his armchair. Sit down, shut up and get to work like the rest of us instead of trying to curse the people struggling to figure out a new business model.

  37. I’m looking forward to the day when medicine follows journalism. It’s very early yet, but we’re seeing the beginning of major changes in how medical information is managed and distributed. Good thing too!

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