Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

The death of newspapers

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I had occasion recently to construct a power point presentation for an address to some fabulous folks at Creative Retirement Manitoba. The first part of the PPT dealt with the state of traditional media, in particular the threat to newspapers from declining circulation and advertising, and the challenge of competing in the bold on-line world. Assembling the slides was informative, even for me, as it caused me to think more about the state of my own profession than I had previously.

One of the more dramatic slides in my presentation contains an advertisement from Gazeteport, Turkey's first on-line newspaper. Gazeteport is fascinating because it is one of the first newspapers to be launched on-line. The paper's provocative advertising campaign not only trumpets its own arrival, but forecasts the death of the ink-on-paper, dead-tree version of this medium. I use the slide because I think it demonstrates two important points.

First, that the challenge facing traditional media is not just a Canadian phenomenon. And second, that this is a debate about content, stupid, not medium.

Gazeteport is not a threat to newspapers. It is, in fact, a newspaper without the paper. And it's a bold attempt to provide professional content without having to resort to using a printing press. Perhaps it's the future of our industry, or perhaps not. Gazeteport, ironically, facing the exact same problem we in the dead-tree universe face the exact same problem - how to offer good content and get people to pay for it. At some point, Gazeteport has to pay its bills and the same readers who are abandoning their subscriptions to traditional newspapers are the same people who will want to read Gazeteport for free. Once organizations like Gazeteport learn to make money offering a 100-per-cent on-line product, chances are so will traditional newspapers.

The focus on content, not medium, will define the future debate over who will provide the news and in what form. Right now, I try to take a glass-half-full view of the situation. (And seriously, who expects me to take a more cynical and objective look at things? I love my job, and have some affection for my paycheque. Sue me.) Right now, more people read what I write than ever before, and not because we're actually printing more papers.

Our on-line content is well read by reasonable standards. We have copy sharing agreements with CanWest Global, giving some of our stories access to all of their newspaper websites, and the site for the National Post. I wrote a profile last week of Vincent Li, the man who beheaded Tim McLean on a Winnipeg-bound bus. Page views on our site were robust, and the article was picked up and posted on all the CanWest sites. It was then published in the National Post and two other CanWest papers the day after.

And that doesn't even account for the additional readers we get from sending our stories to Canadian Press, the newspaper-owned coopertive that shares copies with newspapers and other media around the world. On top of all that is the alternative media - the on-line news sites and bloggers who often riff off what newspapers and other traditional media produce.

Graham at Progressive Winnipeg offers a greate perspective on the so-called "death of newspapers." Graham notes that of his 31 blog posts in 2009, one third were based on comments he made about a specirfic newspaper story. A handful of others reacted to electronic content. In Graham's words, there is a relationship between the mainstream media and the alternvative media that is to the benefit of all fans of news.

Although he did not specifically say it, I think his analysis identifies the content as the important issue, not the medium. And the fact that professional news organizations, whether or not they buy ink by the barrel, are important to the future of on-line news. But Graham will let me know if I've overstepped on my take on his thoughts.

Newspapers are suffering right now, to be sure. But they are not suffering because people don't want to read what we write. They don't want to pay for it. As businesses, newspapers are suffering primarily because advertisers do not have the money to advertise. Circulation isn't robust, but many papers like the Free Press had been holding pretty steady in overall circulation for many years. We just weren't growing our dead-tree audience. Instead, we've grown our on-line audience. Now, we have 400,000 unique visitors accessing our content each month. Although that's hardly enough to say the website is a stand alone business model, it's nothing to sneeze at and, more importantly, it's growing.

The big challenge, whether it's Gazeteport, the Free Press or any other news organization is to find a practical way of generating income from the people who want the content. There is no consensus on how that is going to happen, if ever. I personally see newspapers moving to a cable television model, where subscribers will pay a fee to their ISP to access a collection of the best newspapers on-line. although some TV is available "free" over the airwaves, most of us willingly pay for access to all kinds of channels, including news channels. But I'll admit that's a model that, for the purposes of supporting newspapers, is unproven and not without its practical challenges.

There are certainly people who are looking forward to dancing on our collective graves. I remain hopeful (because really, what else can I do?) that content will triumph over medium. If I'm wrong, then I'll be unemployed and blogging full time, which will finally earn me a membership in the alternative media. So I've got that going for me.

 

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