The Future of Newspapers

Posted by Sam Churchill on

The FCC has just released a comprehensive, 500 page report on The Information Needs of Communities.

“As newsrooms have shrunk, the job of the remaining reporters has changed. They typically face rolling deadlines as they post to their newspaper’s website before, and after, writing print stories,” the FCC’s report notes.

The percentage of Americans who reported that they had gone “newsless” the day before they were asked in a Pew survey rose from 14 percent in 1998 to 17 percent in 2009—and it was highest, 31 percent, among 18 to 24 year olds.

The fastest-growing means for accessing news and information is the mobile device. Fifty-six percent of all mobile device users, and 47 percent of the population, now use them to get local news via an Internet connection. Increasingly, mobile phones, e-Readers and tablets are news media platforms—just like a newspaper or a TV set—as much as they are two-way communications tools.

Some of the most innovative news-related mobile apps aggregate news produced by multiple sources. For example, Newsy’s app compiles video coverage of a given story produced by many different news organizations. The Zen News app uses “tag cloud navigation” and organizes stories by size. The popularity of social-media services like Twitter and Facebook on smartphones presents another important way of disseminating news, each serving, in effect, as a customized news service that relies on the judgment of the consumer’s network of friends or followers.

The Amazon Kindle Store offers monthly subscriptions to more than 80 U.S. newspapers. Of the 25 largest-circulation newspapers in the United States, at least 20 are available on the Kindle, including more than 40 of the 100 most popular.

A review of Apple’s App Store in May 2011 found more than 200 iPad apps offering local U.S. news content. Fifty-seven percent of newspaper publishers surveyed by the Audit Bureau of Circulations said that they “have plans to develop an iPad app in the next six months.

So far, mobile devices have not proved to be a major source of revenue for news outlets, neither through advertising nor paid applications, but news organizations are still experimenting with different business models.

The study concludes:


The media landscape is mostly vibrant. In many ways, today’s media system is better than ever: faster and cheaper distribution networks; fewer barriers to entry; and more ways of consuming information. Americans not only have ways of expressing their opinions, they can help create and cover the news. Choice abounds.

But there are a few areas of serious concern. We face not a broad crisis of “the news” or “content”—but something much more specific: a shortage of local, professional accountability reporting. This is likely to lead to more government waste, more local corruption, worse schools, a less-informed electorate, and other serious problems in communities. I

In some cases, the loss of reporting capacity has meant a power shift away from citizens toward government and other institutions. Gaps created by the contraction of newspapers have—so far—not been fully filled by other media. Some local TV news shows are investing more in reporting about critical local issues, but many are not (and some are exhibiting alarming tendencies to allow advertisers to dictate content).

Commercial radio, cable and satellite play a small and likely declining role in local news. Public TV does little local programming; local public radio is trying but has limited resources. Most important, Internet-native local news operations have so far not gained sufficient traction. In many cases, the result is more media outlets but less local reporting.

Markets are evolving rapidly and it is certainly possible these gaps will be eventually filled by commercial markets. But so far it has not happened, and we cannot assume all reporting deficits will be solved this way.

ArsTechnica says “rolling deadlines” in many newsrooms are increasingly resembling the rapid iteration of the proverbial exercise device invented for the aforementioned cute domestic rodent. The observation was first made by Dean Starkman in a Columbia Journalism Review piece titled “The Hamster Wheel.”

The “Hamster Wheel” isn’t about speed, the report quotes Starkman as saying. “It’s motion for motion’s sake… volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no.”

The growth of tablets could be good news for newspapers. It combines a subscription model with large, colorful display ads and external links. HTML5 will bring embedded multi-media for narrated slide shows, video, graphics and social media.

Writers may organize their own ad-hock networks. Who needs a publisher, a printing press, or a distribution network?

I believe cellular providers will determine the future of newspapers. Wireless broadband will never be a mass market as long as cellular providers are in control. They will constrain spectrum use with high prices and usage caps.

Corporate profit is a good thing. So are public roads. We need both.

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Posted by Sam Churchill on Monday, June 13th, 2011 at 8:39 am .

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