ID Home
Time To Learn New Tricks
by Sean Scanlon, The Press (24 August 2006)

For years, newspaper journalists have sat back and ignored warnings that they worked for dinosaurs facing imminent extinction.

I have always shrugged these suggestions off as cynicism and pointed out that newspapers offer so much compared to other media.

But it is time to admit that everything is changing fast, and newspapers will have to be incredibly deft to keep up.

The current picture for newspapers is complex and dangerous. Circulation figures across the world are dropping, internet advertising is booming, but most importantly, people are interacting with news differently.

An explosion of what is constantly referred to as "new media", through the internet, email, and cellphones, is enabling individuals to tell the world what is happening in their communities and personal lives. The age of the "netizen", especially embraced by younger generations, effectively gives the tools of publishing and public expression to anyone with a computer and internet connection. Just look at the success of sites such as MySpace and Flickr.

Add to this the ability that the internet gives individuals to get instantaneous news and cherry pick what information they want, and newspapers can look slow and clunky.

This is not an easy thing for newspapers to come to grips with.

Traditionally, newspapers and the mass media in general had unique access to information and published stories to a reasonably inert audience.

Yes, people could ring and complain or write letters to the editor, but newspapers always made the final decision about publication or follow-ups. Commentators refer to this as the "news as a lecture" model.

Today, readers can go lone and express their opinions or publish material themselves with no restrictions. They can also access government reports and other information, where once only journalists had access, and make up their own minds. Newspapers are in danger of being sidelined.

But newspapers are not dead yet.

First, and most obviously, they can play to their strengths. In a fragmenting information world, trust, credibility, reputation and accountability become powerful allies for established mass media. A lot of what is published on the internet by individuals is not going to be read by a large audience because of its quality and lack of broader relevance.

But newspapers should not be complacent or snobbish. If they want to maintain their position in everyday life they must go further than cheer-leading about their own brilliance.

Newspapers must engage with their readers and the internet is the ideal arena.

The buzz phrase, used by many media commentators and academics at present, is "news as a conversation".

A conversation means pulling down the walls and letting the public inside the news process.

The Guardian newspaper in the UK is seen as a world leader for larger newspapers in terms of fostering a "news conversation".

The Guardian treats its website as not just merely an extension of the newspaper where stories should be plonked, but as a meeting place for readers to interact and talk about the news.

Earlier this year it launched Comment is Free on the web (http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/index.html). The site allows anyone registered with The Guardian online (which is free and takes about two minutes) to post unedited comments on the newspaper's stories and columns. Readers can respond to comments from other readers on almost any topic.

It is a fascinating initiative and one not without its problems, especially around abusive language and personal attacks. Journalists can also find it difficult to come to terms with the sometimes brutal response to their articles.

However, the Guardian is both fostering and placing itself at the centre of debate, something which can only help any newspaper build its integrity, relevance and importance to readers.

The Guardian has a massive online news presence, which is unlikely to be replicated in New Zealand, but the theory behind its initiatives should be considered.

Essentially, the paper's motto is "we are of the web, not just on the web". I would say most New Zealand papers are only "on the web".

The most important step to truly being of the web is openness, interaction and immediacy.

Of course, there is always the fear that having a strong web presence will impact on a newspaper's bottom line, encouraging readers to abandon their subscriptions.

But newspapers must have a back-up plan against the trends they face. At present, there is little other choice than the internet.

If in 30 years everyone gets their newspaper through an electronic device, then the Guardian is already at the front of the pack.

In the meantime, there are many initiatives newspapers can introduce to build a greater rapport with readers and ensure they keep coming back.

Newspapers can employ a readers' editor to consider corrections and reader complaints; editors can publish their explanations for story decisions; readers can be given an opportunity online to supply obituaries, stories, travel tips. Even small steps such as putting a journalist's email address on the bottom of stories can break down barriers. The list is almost endless, but it also requires the public to respond.

Does New Zealand have a public that wants to understand and be more involved in the news?

I don't think this is the starting point. Newspapers must take the lead and promote a more interactive news environment.

Readers still need a package that presents a broad, accurate, and in-depth picture of the world and newspapers are still in a good position to achieve this.

Some internet bloggers say newspapers have had their day, but there will always be a difference between comment, opinion and journalism.

Making sense of a world in which information is circling around at an incredible speed is essential.