In journalism, the question of how print reconciles itself with the challenges online news has brought is a hotly debated topic. In our new blog on online journalism we will be joining the conversation and looking at what newspapers are doing to grab online readers, but first here's an introduction to what you can expect from the blog.
The death of the newspaper at the hands of the internet is the modern day equivalent of the debate people had in the Fifties as to whether television was killing radio. The decline of newspaper circulation has editors, journalists, and even news vendors on street corners deeply concerned. As journalism shuffles its way into a new online era, the industry has had to look deeply at how it can satisfy a readership which is changing the way they get their news. It is now clear that simply having a website is not enough. The means by which newspapers develop their sites to effectively satisfy current readers and entice new ones is a fascinating issue which will serve as the pivotal discussion point for the blog.
At present, editors know with absolute certainty that readership figures of print are down as more people log on to read the news. The central questions I would like to explore in the blog are; in what way do newspapers make these steps into online news? What are they doing to diversify and react to a growing online readership, and how are they developing sites to satisfy a readership that demands that news be brought to them more quickly than ever before.
Citizen journalism on the march
Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, free newspapers for commuters, Google news alerts and mobile phone technology have become newspapers' biggest rivals. In the good old days the media would set the news agenda. Not anymore - now editors look to their readers and ask them what they want. The boot is well and truly on the other foot. When former Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith died last year, a US newspaper changed its front page splash when it realized that the story on Smith’s death had become one of the most read that day. This proves that readers now impact news content, sometimes even deciding which stories make the front page. This is a very important seismic shift that warrants further discussion - again, something I want to address in the blog.
The type of content I would like to feature on the blog are examples of how newspapers, magazines, television and radio are changing the ways in which they deliver news. A recent example of this would be when California was struck by devastating forest fires in 2007. San Diego TV station, News 8, took down their entire website to replace it with a rolling news blog, linking to YouTube videos of key reports and providing Google Maps to show people where the fires had spread. This exemplifies how a major television station used successful resources like Google and YouTube to enhance the news they provide and entice readers to log on, not just once a day but maybe even a few times a day. It’s this kind of quick response to breaking news stories that has print journalists quaking in their boots.
Newspapers online - challenge or opportunity?
Many editors and business managers of newspapers wanted to ignore the internet, but as readers have deserted print or simply satisfied themselves with free papers, they have been forced to sit up and take notice. In a recent conversation I had with a journalist, a former technology editor for a national UK newspaper, I asked him why it had taken some newspapers so long to react to these industry changes. He said that it was because the culture change for big companies such as newspapers is like "turning a massive tanker in the ocean". It takes a long time and a lot of patience, and it has to be executed with precision to prevent mistakes being made at huge cost.
This is exactly the kind of question I want to throw out to the blogosphere. Why have newspapers found themselves squashed by social networking sites that have sprung up after newspapers went online? Why haven’t they been able to get a slice of the kind of success MySpace, Facebook and Google has had in recent years?
I would also like to use the blog to create debates around practical issues newspapers will have to address as they develop their online presence. As a journalist the newspaper I contribute to already has a website, however they (like many others) know it’s not enough. The very way readers find news these days is by googling a subject. This has left newspapers placing new demands on journalists and sub-editors to write articles which lead online readers to their stories.
A new way to attract readers' attention
For example, if a headline is to truly work online, it must have a keyword in it. More often than not the sub-editor will do this for print, but the reader has more information in their hands - they have a photograph, picture captions, the full text is in front of them (they don’t have to scroll down to see pull-out quotes), and they will have subheadings to read. All of this information builds a picture in the reader's mind - he or she slots all the pieces together like a jigsaw and can make sense of the story straightaway.
A good example of a headline which worked very well in print is 'Super Cale Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious', but if a reader were to Google 'Inverness Caledonian Thistle football score', it’s very unlikely that this story would have made the first page. If this headline were to be made today, the sub-editor may very well be asked to write a different headline for their online edition. This is a challenge sub-editors will have to overcome if stories are going to be found by online readers. It’s interesting to see this happen and to notice what choices sub-editors are making in relation to their online and offline headlines.
I would also like to use the blog to invite discussions about what newspapers could do to improve their websites. One reason cited for the decline of the newspaper industry has been the rise and rise of the citizen journalist. Why go to the bother of writing an article, pitching it to an editor, and running the risk of it never being read? Now that practically everyone has access to a computer, there have never been as many opportunities to communicate and share opinions with others. Should newspapers find a way to embrace this new culture? Should they provide platforms for citizen journalists to discuss whatever they want and contribute to a national newspaper?
This type of debate is likely to rumble on as print journalism finds a way to reconcile itself with new media. I personally doubt this is the end of journalism, but with many out there dancing on its grave, has the industry left it too late?
If you'd like to read more of Rachelle's articles on online journalism, go to the Wordtracker Online Journalism page.
About Rachelle Money
Rachelle is a contributor to The Web Content Recipe book
Nowadays, Rachelle is Communications Manager at Scottish Renewables.
She graduated from the Scottish School of Journalism in 2005 where she was awarded an internship with two national publications - The Sunday Herald newspaper and The Big Issue magazine.