Ink vs. Electrons

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Posted January 4, 2006 by TRACY EVERBACH in News

Most of my former newspaper colleagues probably hate to hear me say it. In fact, they so hate to hear it that they have planted their heads very firmly in the sand – or the ink barrel -so they won’t have to consider it.


But it’s true nonetheless: In 2015, you’ll probably be reading your morning newspaper on a computer screen. You’ll still browse the pages while drinking your black coffee, latte, or Red Bull – but you won’t hold the paper in your hands.

Daily newspapers have been grappling for the past decade with how the internet will change their business. A paper product published on a daily cycle is finding it hard to beat instant news, available at people’s fingertips.

Some think newspapers will die at the hands of instant news from providers like Yahoo! and Google. I believe newspapers will live, but in new formats. Some will become specialized publications, targeting specific markets, like Fort Worth’s La Estrella and Dallas’ Al Dia Spanish-language newspapers. Mainstream papers like the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Dallas Morning News will find their niches by focusing on local news that readers can’t find elsewhere.

Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of MIT’s Media Lab and a founder of Wired magazine, has said that old forms of media don’t disappear – they find ways to adapt. Radio transformed from a primary source of news and entertainment in the early 20th century into a medium for music, talk, sports, and traffic.

After a decade or so of internet penetration, newspapers are being forced to make changes. This month, USA Today, America’s largest newspaper, followed The New York Times by announcing that its web and print operations are no longer separate.

Newspapers must take steps like this to stay alive.

People 30 and younger overwhelmingly go to the internet, not to daily newspapers, for information. I see it among my students – even journalism students have to be forced to read newspapers – but statistics also back it up.

The 2004 Pew Internet and American Life Project showed that 77 percent of Americans 18 to 29 years old use the internet. Among 30- to 49-year-olds, fully three-fourths use the web. That doesn’t mean people use only the internet to get their news, but it shows a strong dependence on the medium.

Historically, it’s taken 30 years for any new technology to be accepted in American society, according to Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research foundation in Menlo Park, Calif. His theory is that the internet now is in the second decade of assimilation. By the third decade, the technology is accepted as standard, used by nearly everyone.

That means that in about 10 years, the internet will be as ingrained in society as television, and many more people will depend on it for news. Newspapers, which earn their money from advertisers and subscribers, will have to shift most of their resources to the web.

If advertising doesn’t provide enough money to survive on, newspapers probably will have to charge for web content – similar to the way cable tv charges subscribers.

The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., last year began charging $7 a month to read the paper online (subscribers of the print version get the online version free). About 1,000 people have subscribed so far.

In September, The New York Times launched TimesSelect, which costs readers $49.95 a year for online access to columns by Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristof, Thomas L. Friedman and others. About 270,000 people signed up, according to American Journalism Review.

Locally, the Dallas daily doesn’t charge for regular content, but offers CowboysPlus.com, which features news, columns and newsletters on the Dallas Cowboys for $29.95 for a year. Chris Kelley, editor of DallasNews.com, would not disclose the number of subscribers because of “competitive reasons.” He said the News has no plans at this point to charge for content other than its news story archive.

Kathy Vetter, managing editor for online news at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said Knight Ridder, which owns the paper, has not announced any plans to charge for online content beyond the archive.

The Star-Telegram is trying to draw more readers to its web site. The paper is labeling some local news stories with information about when news was posted at www.star-telegram.com. A Dec. 17 article about an indictment in police officer Hank Nava’s killing, for instance, featured the logo “First online” and noted that the piece was posted at 6:13 p.m. the previous night.

It’s a wise strategy to start weaning readers off the paper version. Newspaper web sites need to provide more instant, interactive, and multimedia news with audio and video to persuade readers to sign on.

Still, Sunday mornings won’t be the same without sorting though five pounds of newspaper sections and hunting for the tv magazine among the ad circulars.

Tracy Everbach is a journalism professor at the University of North Texas. She can be reached at TracyEverbach@hotmail.com.

 


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