Consuming News in 2020

By: David S. Hirschman

Part of me hopes print newspapers will be around in 2020. I like the tactile ink-on-paper format; it’s portable and disposable (or recyclable), able to be passed around from reader to reader, and a common source of reference for people of a specific geographic or cultural niche.

But I find myself less and less able to justify spending money on a print paper in the morning (for a variety of reasons), and I suspect many other people feel the same way. And as far-superior alternative platforms for digital news content continue to pop up, it seems less and less likely that I’ll be carrying a print newspaper under my arm in 14 years.

Instead, I’ll have some sort of light, portable device that is easy enough to read and mimics a newspaper, but which incorporates all of the interactive elements of online journalism and automatically connects to the Internet and updates (via WiFi, or something similar) to give me the latest information available (not unlike the futuristic newspaper feautred in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report”). This device will support video and audio, and I will expect that every story will include a variety of content and links to other information that will provide context.

Laptops and PDAs are already almost there. Their portability, affordability, and readability may limit current online content platforms, but those issues will soon be moot. And once they are, who will really want to read a print edition that, by nature, gives less and outdated information?

So, with this in mind, newspaper companies should really be thinking less in terms of “How can I blend my print and Web content to form a cohesive team?” The real questions is “How can I change everything I have done until now so that the focus is solely on producing quality, round-the-clock, multimedia content that is compelling and useful to my readers, and builds a community of like-minded people who will add their own content to what I provide?”

Digital content is the name of the game now, and will be for quite some time. If newspaper companies plan to continue to exist in 2020, they should realize that their news likely won’t be in print anymore, and their priorities are going to have to change. Here are a few good first steps.

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Video, video, video

Going forward, newsrooms should all have a video camera available, and reporters should be expected to use it whenever they can. Video cameras are cheap, video editing is easy, and digital clips can be uploaded in minutes and disseminated to the world. Video is added-value for any Web story, and is a valuable resource both for the reporter and the public. Not every story requires video, but there are few (if any) stories that can’t be enhanced by a couple of minutes of footage.

And I’m not just talking about breaking news. Newspapers should be recording the key minutes of municipal meetings and posting them on the Web. They should be recording video of some Little League games, and high school plays and town parades. And those videos they cannot make, they should allow local people to upload. As portals of local information, newspaper sites should also have the capacity (and desire) to become localized versions of YouTube.

This doesn’t mean that everyone who works for the paper needs to be able to produce an Emmy-winning film, just that they be able to hold a camera straight. With the proliferation of amateur videos on the Web, people have gotten used to clips that are grainy, or have bad sound and lighting, or are a little shaky. Simply having the content available is the thing; a quick interview with a mayor that gets quoted in the story, or a couple of minutes of footage at the scene of a crime.

And video provides another important advantage for newspapers: independent verification of what a reporter writes. Sure a video can be manipulated (like all media), but it can also provide additional evidence to support a reporter’s story (much as audio tapes have done for interviews). Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley, and Stephen Glass could have never gotten away with their well-publicized fabrications if they had been required to produce video content alongside their stories.

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Online First

There are almost no stories that newspapers produce that should appear first in print. Breaking news, analysis, opinions, sports; everything should be posted online as soon as it is ready to go. This doesn’t mean that stories should be rushed or sloppily executed, just that there is no need to hold a finished piece so that it can appear at the same time as the print edition in the morning.

With this in mind, every newsroom should be a “continuous news desk,” and top editors at the paper should be directly involved in producing and monitoring online content. Editors need not meet every afternoon to try and hammer out what should be on A1; it’s already there, and those decisions are being made constantly.

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Make Your Readers Part of Your Brand

Beyond simply soliciting comments on news articles or hosting Web chats (though those are good to have), newspaper sites should be trying to create communities where readers feel themselves a part of putting together the paper every morning.

Some sites already let readers upload news tips and photos; why not let them upload full news stories in a special section? Of course an editor will need to sift through them (separating out obvious PR submissions and obscene content), and a disclaimer will have to be attached to those that are posted, but by creating a forum like this, newspapers will give readers a stake in their product, and they will feel ownership over the content they have created. And they will continue to come back.

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The good news about all of this is that it’s already happening. Some sites are making great strides in all three of these areas. Washingtonpost.com recently promoted one of its top print editors, Liz Speyd to head up its Web site, effectively joining the traditional newsroom mentality to the site. Hyper-local Web guru Rob Curley (profiled recently in Fast Company magazine) is helping newspapers everywhere become more dynamic online by leveraging niche-interest content. And news organizations are already trying to find ways to (safely) incorporate user content into their news product

But many papers aren’t changing quickly enough, and the ones that miss the boat will soon find themselves surpassed by other local entrepreneurs who can better provide the news and services and community that people traditionally got from newspapers.

In 2020, hopefully, the “newspaper” I read — and watch, and listen to — via PDA or whatever, will be infinitely more illuminating, entertaining, and useful than what I’ve grown used to until now. But it’s still unclear whether the news I get will be from the newspaper companies who bring it to me today.

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