Critical Thinking: Pros and Cons to Online-Only Publishing

By: Deena Higgs Nenad

J-school students and industry vets tackle the tough questions

Q:A newspaper has been forced to discontinue its print edition and publish entirely on its website. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages the paper might face?

Julia Brenner: 22, senior at University of Wisconsin’s School of Journalism in Madison

Brenner graduates in May and is deciding whether to write for magazines or become a television anchor. She has made video packages for MarketWatch and University of Wisconsin’s Badger Report and was a production associate and writer for her college rag, Curb Magazine.

A:Recently, my grandmother asked me to watch her favorite television program with her. Being the wonderful grandchild that I am, I would have gladly come over, but with job applications looming, the need for Internet access was crucial. She took my declined invitation as an insult because the truth is: My grandmother doesn’t get the Internet. What she does get, both mentally and at her doorstep, is the Chicago Tribune.

Digitalizing newspapers means losing older, faithful readership if those consumers can’t access or understand the Internet. Digitalization diminishes buyer-seller relationships and any sense of demographics when anyone can view articles. Moreover, the Internet is distracting! Ads border websites’ pages, while hyperlinks take readers from a story about Libyan rebels to one about the royal wedding. Hyperlinks may expand our database of knowledge, but it’s only surface deep. Newspapers must inform the public, and an informed public shouldn’t know more about Kate Middleton’s “something borrowed” than conflict overseas.

The upside to digitalization includes increased readership, as well as the use of search engines to specify what readers want to know. This creates opportunities for media agenda setting, allowing newspapers to publish articles deemed newsworthy by the public. Digitalization creates technological opportunities such as applications and videos. The comment section is a plus as well. Instead of waiting days for letters to the editor, an editor can instantly see what issues spark the most interest. Last, newspapers can constantly update their websites. Breaking news is always available, a feature missing with print newspapers.

Advantages do seem to outweigh disadvantages. If this is the future, poor Gram will have to rely on me for news. Don’t worry though; she’s excited about Middleton’s “something borrowed” too.

John Granatino: 57, deputy managing editor/interactive for The Dallas Morning News

For 31 years, Granatino worked news and interactive management positions at other A.H. Belo companies including The Providence (R.I.) Journal and Belo Interactive Media before joining the newspaper in 2009. He lives on a farm south of Dallas with his wife, two dogs, three cats, five chickens, and 10 sheep.

A:Freed from the bonds of print, a “newspaper” can pursue interests and audiences previously out of reach. Once freed, the newspaper no longer has to be manufactured from huge rolls of newsprint, or trucked to readers, or limited in size due to the cost of its physical materials.

Online-only publication provides many advantages. The online paper is not restricted to a limited number of pages each day. Information can be distributed profitably at much lower cost and to far greater distances. If there are to be no restrictions on size, why limit the scope of the publication to news from the last 24 hours? It now can contain searchable archives from the previous week, month, year, decade, or century.

Topically, the paper need not limit its focus to the general interests of a heterogeneous audience that lives nearby. It now has license to specialize (finance, football, theater) and to freely find the audience for those niches even if they live far outside distribution truck routes.

More abstractly, if information costs less and is distributed more broadly, a better informed electorate can make the important governance choices that are its constitutional mandate.

But there is a downside as well. To many, the permanence of the printed page greatly outweighs the immediacy of electrons flickering on a computer screen. And not to forget the profound satisfaction of turning slowly from page to page, taking time to linger on a well-framed photo or the elegant turn of phrase. The physicality of the printed newspaper makes it feel like a place we actually visit to shop for ideas and bargains. No morning coffee ever tasted as good in front of a monitor.

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Published: April 28, 2011

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