I published a post a little while ago titled “Bloggers v Big Media is not the real debate” about how newspapers are unlikely to fall by the wayside simply because bloggers are becoming so prevalent on the social Web. Instead I expressed a view that the format of newspapers will and should change to embrace digital distribution channels and move away from the printed form that we have become accustomed to. Two news items in the last day or two reinforced this for me. The first is the venerable PC Magazine’s decision to go 100% digital after its January 2009 edition and the second is a report about a speech Rupert Murdoch gave recently about the continued viability of newspapers which I read on ReadWriteWeb.
Murdoch made a couple observations and comments which I believe echo my own thoughts and which hold true (certainly for me):
He doesn’t believe that the internet will be the death of newspapers at all – it will only transform them. He called the doomsayers who predict the Internet killing off newspapers “misguided cynics who are too busy writing their own obituary to be excited by the opportunity.” He believes they are missing the fact that the online world is really just a huge new market ready to be tapped. And it’s filled with news-craving consumers. People now are “hungrier for information that ever before,” he said. “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.”
The news of the future may not come in the printed paper format anymore, Murdoch admits. In the coming decades, he too expects some newspapers to lose circulation. But as those numbers die down, others will increase. Online news sources will grow and grow. The circulation gains he expects will be not only through web pages and RSS feeds, but also email that delivers customized news and ads to our mobile devices.
This really shouldn’t be news to anyone (excuse the pun). We have seen newspapers go digital all over the world in the last few years. Here in South Africa we have seen most of the newspapers we read each day develop some form of digital version ranging from pretty restrictive, subscriber access versions to almost completely open versions. My favourite local, online papers in terms of available content and media include The Times and the Mail & Guardian. Both publications also have pretty robust mobile versions too which is essential in a country with such low desktop/laptop access penetration and ever increasing mobile access to the Web (I believe that any Web publisher who hasn’t given serious thought to making their content available in a mobile friendly version is foolish, not just in South Africa but generally).
I would prefer to see the content be more freely available in whichever form best suits me, the reader, as opposed to seeing subscriber only access to certain content or only being able to read the publication in a specific reader but I’d like to separate these two preferences. Leaving aside my obvious free culture leanings, I can understand the need for paid access to certain content and I have said before that I will happily pay to receive my favourite subscriptions through a premium RSS feed if it means I can then take that content with me as I go. PC Magazine has been available in a digital format for several years now and you can access it through Zinio’s reader on your desktop/laptop.
The reader works well enough and the pages even flow like the physical publication but I would much rather have the flexibility of being able to read my magazine in NetNewsWire or some other feed reader (Google Reader is fantastic but it doesn’t support premium RSS feeds that include user ID and password authentication as far as I am aware). That being said if the option is available and I am a paying subscriber then I want to have the full feed available to me, not a teaser designed to pull me to the Web site to experience advertising. Advertising options have evolved to the point where ads can be embedded in feeds so there is really no excuse not to just give me a full feed. It shouldn’t be about the format of the content, per se, but rather varying the distribution model enough to give more and more people access to the content in the formats that work best for them. As Murdoch puts it:
“In this coming century, the form of delivery may change, but the potential audience for our content will multiply many times over,” he said.
From my limited perspective I have seen a couple really interesting things in the pipeline here in South Africa and I am really looking forward to seeing what the online publishing space is going to look like in the next year or so. What will become clear is who gets it and who doesn’t and the distinction will be pretty stark.
On a lighter note, check out this post on Six Apart’s TypePad blog promoting a special offer to journalists who face the axe in this difficult financial environment. I got a kick out of this one.