Are days of newspapers numbered?

Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Amando Doronilla weighs in on the issue after reading an article in the Economist.

Excerpt:

AS YOU READ this piece this morning, it has to be asked if you are reading it in a newspaper or on the Internet on a computer in front of you.

If dire predictions come true, the newspapers “in their current form will cease to exist within a decade or two.” Some say that newspapers have a “use by” label tucked to their ears, like perishable consumer commodities.

Newspapers are indeed suffering a readership decline, as Joey Alarilla has pointed out in an earlier column, aptly titled “Wake up and smell the coffee, Dead Tree People .”

While Doronilla discussed how newspapers can still become relevant in the future, despite the impending decline of readership due to the Internet and changing readership behavior, Alarilla finds this Pew Research Center transcript on a roundtable discussion about the same topic by industry experts. In fact, another Economist article shows how behaviors are changing. But journalism per se won’t change.

This debate has emerged in our discussions back in my MA class in journalism at the Konrad Adenauer Center for Journalism. We’ve had heated debates on the importance of public or civic journalism in attracting back readers to newspapers or other mediums like the Internet. The same goes with citizen journalism, which is now the title given to bloggers who have become sources of information.

To say newspaper readerships are declining simply because of the Internet is too simplistic of an explanation. There are many factors at play here.

One of them is the changing demographics and behavior of readers today. Today’s readers don’t have time to sit down and read a newspaper, while they sip a morning coffee. They are either in a hurry to catch a bus or a train, or are in front of a computer updating their blog (like this one). They rely on e-mail, the Internet (or the web), and so-called web 2.0 technologies to feed them their dose of news every day. These next-generation Internet tools allow people to get “feeds” of news and information from different sources. They may chose to have these feeds sent directly to their inbox, their mobile devices, or eventually to their television.

The future is increasingly about the “push” and not the “pull.” What does that mean?

With the explosion of information (we’re in the information age, right?), people don’t have time to wade through all these data. They need tools to help them pick the best information, which they can understand and eventually link to other information. Thus was the success and usefulness of Google. Search engines have become heaven-sent because we don’t have time to read through all the websites and blogs in cyberspace.

What are these push tools that we use today?

One is called RSS, or really simple syndication. As the term implies, it is a web feed mechanism that pushes content to readers. Technically, it allows people to subscribe to their favorite websites, blogs, newspapers, etc, etc. There are many types of RSS or feeds on the web today. They come in different flavors. Today, people are relying on portals like Google, Yahoo! and MSN for RSS feeds.

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I recently read an article from Poynter Institute quoting an LA Times reporter saying Bill Gates had already made an intriguing observation about newspapers sometime in the 1990s. It said:

He says Bill Gates put his finger on the problems facing newspapers when, in the early 1990s, he met with the editorial board of the L.A. Times. “In a comment that has always stuck with me, Gates observed that newspapers delivered a bundle of things — national, international and local news; brand advertising; classified advertising; event listings — that didn’t logically belong together as a bundle.”

Gates is really ahead of his time. More than 10 years later, here we are talking about it.

John Oppedahl also wrote a more intriguing article for Poynter Institute, titled “Unbundling the Newspaper.” In it, he suggested radical ways to change the way newspapers deliver news. But one thing is evident: newspapers should cater not to a mass audience (as in mass media) but to specific groups, and work a business model around that. In short, Oppedahl has hit the point that news and information are becoming a commodity. So newspapers need to add value to this commodity by giving people what they want only, and not a mouthful–and at the right price.

The emergence of mobile phones as a medium to deliver news has offered us a view of the future I believe. While we’re still getting at least 160 characters’ worth of news on our mobile phones, it is already significant because content is pushed to us. We don’t need to wait for tomorrow’s edition to know that the stock prices are plummeting or that Madonna has given birth, or something to that effect.

Recently, there has been much hype on mobile TV. But as most critics say, and I would agree too, people don’t want to watch a 30-minute sitcom on a mobile device while wading through traffic. They just want to get the “highlights.” They want bite-size information, which they can later check online or on TV once they’re in the comforts of their home.

Finally, I just want to stress that journalism will not go away. Newspapers will not either. In fact, in countries like India, the newspaper business is growing. Also, television is perhaps in its “golden age” in Asia. The US is now experiencing a different (r)evolution, but the rest of Asia is still moving in a different direction. Surely, television, radio, and eventually the Internet are all going to play different roles in the delivery of news and information. In the Philippines, other mediums like the mobile phone have played their part too.

As the Economist wrote quoting Arthur Miller: “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” I think blogs are also increasingly serving this purpose.

Published by

Erwin Oliva

Putting a dent on the universe one day at a time