Newspapers Panicked with the Internet, and Got it all Wrong

 

There is little doubt that the impact of the Internet on newspapers has been bruising, if not catastrophic. Yet one paper  by H. Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim of the University of Texas, published in Journalism Practice, suggests poor responses by newspapers brought about much of the damage.

Politico’s Jack Shafer says that “Chyi and Tenenboim studied the total in-market (i.e., local) online readership of 51 top U.S. newspapers (excluding the national newspapers—the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today) and found depressing results.” Only few local newspapers saw “any growth since 2007, the point at which the online versions had been available for about a decade, making it a mature product.”

Worse, more than half lost online readers since 2011. “Online readership for the 51 newspapers in the study was at about a third that of print,” Shafer tells us. In other words, decline of print readership did not happen in favor of the online version. As Becket would say, au contraire.

So, this are the big takeaways: readers see online editions as the lesser cousin of the print version. They judge the Internet news sites as inferior in quality, their intrusive design conspiring against the reading experience. And they favor news aggregators, like Yahoo News and Google News, to the newspaper sites.

Readers also saw online editions as inferior to print because they were free. In addition to it, print newspapers are “tangible,” something we think deserves closer scrutiny. Watch the revival of vinyl in the era of online music and the robust sales of printed books.

By the same token, newspapers are products that have passed the test of time. They are a vital source of information for communities big and small, keeping tabs on government and governance, business and society. We need them, and as they were.

Some newspapers have stuck to their guns, like The New York Times, while developing a bold online strategy. Yet even the newspaper’s management concedes they are still not out of the woods. And that’s one newspaper that had a massive advantage over local ones. Sure, the latter could benefit from the importance of online advisories for their local readers. But that is only one side role for newspapers.

Free online editions are doomed. Chyi and Tenenboim’s research says as much. But print newspapers cannot provide live updates, as readers now expect. We posit that much of this misery is due to electronic platforms that are poor, inadequate substitutes for paper in reading experience.

We foresee a future in which online and print will converge on a product that still does not exist: an electronic, interactive paper, equal or very similar in look and feel to pulp paper. But until then, newspapers should get back to what they did best, tie a knot at the end of the rope and hang in there until their second chance comes back. It will.

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