The Digital Challenge for News Media

The blogosphere is abuzz at the moment with discussion of the Guardian’s newly announced “digital first” strategy. Journalism and advertising have long been intertwined. The recession has seen brands slash their advertising expenditure but, more importantly, the digital revolution has instigated a paradigmatic shift in how news is reported, distributed and shared: whereas it used to be concrete and periodic, it is now both malleable and constant. The way we process the ensuing abundance of information is undergoing parallel changes.

There is a growing body of work contending that how we communicate in the digital world is actually akin to communications prior to the Gutenberg revolution. This thesis, titled the ‘Gutenberg Parenthesis’, holds that the age of ‘textuality’ instigated by the printing press was a mere interruption in what is the more natural and common mode of human interaction, that of ‘orality’: namely ‘conversation, gossip, the ephemeral.’ A similar argument is propounded by Clay Shirky with his concept of ‘cognitive surplus.’ Shirky argues that the dominant mode of engagement with the media has been passive consumption with people functioning as couch potatoes. However, the digital age has created media tools that enable people to do more than merely consume, we can create. This newfound ability is, according to Shirky, a return to primordial human motivations. Social media has enabled ordinary citizens, in a Habermasian sense, to step back into the public sphere, the Arab Spring being a case in point.

So, how exactly do journalists fit into this environment whereby ordinary citizens have the ability to assume those roles traditionally held by reporters? Where should news media position themselves in this new paradigm? (See Storyful) And how should they adapt their relationship with advertisers? As well as having to adapt to the new, interactive nature of the web, news media must solve the difficulty of how to be financially profitable. How do they transition to the digital world where their competitors are offering the same service, but for free? Given that advertisers now have more ways to reach their target markets, why should they use news websites?

The Guardian, The Times and The New York Times have each adopted a different stance to the erection of paywalls. The Times of London have erected an impermeable paywall; it is necessary to subscribe in order to access articles. As of December 2010 The Times lost an estimated 90% of its online readership. The New York Times have adopted a metered approach whereby users have access to a limited number of articles a month before having to subscribe.  It is too soon to tell how effective such a strategy will be. The Guardian, conversely, is adopting an open approach. They are shifting their efforts to prioritise their digital offering and are reconfiguring their newspaper to fit in with their “digital first” strategy. According to The Guardian, many of their print readers read the paper in the evening and prefer to read breaking news on digital devices in the morning. They are therefore changing their print offering to an evening edition focusing more on analysis and commentary rather than news per se. They are planning to further increase their online readership in the US thereby encouraging US advertising.

People surfing the web primarily flitter from site to site without fully engaging with content let alone advertisements. However, if people have paid subscriptions they are arguably more engaged and will perhaps engage more with advertisements. Furthermore, via the subscription process more details are known of the users enabling advertisements to be tailored specifically to a given reader. However, one can easily counter that people who pay for subscriptions do not want to be distracted by such advertisements. It is impossible to predict how these different strategies will unfold. How can media planners make themselves relevant? Are they in a better position to predict than other MarComms people? Or are sociologists or cognitive scientists better able to look ahead than those operating within the media industry?

– Posted by Ruth

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