Newspapers must hybrid-ize

newspapersAs a recovering journalist, I have watched with consternation and dismay the battles newspapers and magazines are undergoing.  It is a painful time for traditional news media, particularly print media. And with results from the National Newspaper Association, it just got worse: Newspaper ad revenue sank nearly $2 billion in the third quarter of 2008.

Nevertheless, I have reason to believe the paradigm shift that has been happening for several years is starting to take shape. There may be a light at the end of the tunnel for newspapers, magazines, and the advertisers who have always looked to these mediums to reach their audiences.

News Corp Chairman Rupert Murdoch recently had this to say about the future of the newspaper industry: “Unlike the doom and gloomers, I believe that newspapers will reach new heights. In the 21st century, people are hungrier for information than ever before. And they have more sources of information than ever before… Amid these many diverse and competing voices, readers want what they’ve always wanted: a source they can trust. That has always been the role of great newspapers in the past. And that role will make newspapers great in the future. If you discuss the future with newspapermen, you will find that too many think that our business is only physical newspapers. I like the look and feel of newsprint as much as anyone. But our real business isn’t printing on dead trees. It’s giving our readers great journalism and great judgment.”

(Before I make my case why I think advances in emerging media are supporting Murdoch’s statement, I should note that despite the hype we heard this year about the “rise of the citizen journalist,” I think it is a mistake to give too much credit to “citizen journalism” which has become  a rather cheap attempt by news sources to help augment content offerings, and to get users to interact with their sites and raise click-thru rates.  It takes a lot of resources and time to build the kind of connections necessary to break stories—and stories do still get broken the good old fashioned way, through lots of research and contacts. Readers will always seek out the most reliable and trustworthy sources available—news brands cannot forget this as they find ways to survive.)

But back to Murdoch’s assessment and what it means for the new media universe: “It’s true that in the coming decades, the printed versions of some newspapers will lose circulation…But if papers provide readers with news they can trust, we’ll see gains in circulation, on our web pages, through our RSS feeds, in emails delivering customized news and advertising to mobile phones. In short, we are moving from news-papers to news-brands.”

Murdoch formulated a cogent synopsis of the conversation folks have been having across newsrooms, in boardrooms, and even at the Lab over the past few years.

Here are some further developments that show emerging media may actually help printed news media survive:

-The Web is the most trusted news medium (over TV and print combined) according to a new Zogby poll commissioned by the Independent Film Channel; full disclosure, the study also showed Rush Limbaugh was one of the most trusted news sources below the New York Times, so we’ll handle these stats with a cautionary hand)

-Advances in flexible screen technology will create new avenues for newspapers to publish and make accessing web content through mobile and handheld devices increasingly satisfying–see this Minority Report clip to see what it might look like

-Affordable e-Ink solutions are making big strides and could provide newspapers and publishers with increasingly dynamic ways to serve content

-New web technology has the potential to bring the experience of reading a paper to the web. Internet stories will start to look and feel like newspapers, and as touch screens become more widely available, it will become possible to “turn pages.” And, if objects like the our friendly Chumby increase in popularity, you really could snuggle up with an RSS feed as you might have a newspaper

-Print technology can also improve to make printing cheaper, so that newspapers that do continue to publish real newspapers will lower their overhead

-Hyper-local news sites will make advertising revenue more relevant, and will always offer news and resources that national papers won’t be able to keep up with.

In the end, it’s not about the death of the newspaper, but the hybridization of the newspaper. Use whatever tools it takes to get the stories to us easily and with engaging interactive elements. Just keep the reporters and maintain the quality of journalism–whether in a blog or on a mobile text alert. We will follow!