MIT Communications Forum – Why Newspapers Matter – 10.5.06

This was the third and final installment of the series “Will Newspapers Survive?.” The panel featured Jerome Armstrong, founder of Netroots.com and a pioneer of political blogging; Pablo Boczkowski, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University; and Dante Chinni, a columnist for the Christian Science Monitor and a senior associate with the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The session started with comments by the Forum’s organizer and moderator, David Thorburn. He observed that the previous sessions had generally taken too Utopian a view of the possibilities being offered by new interactive technologies without due consideration of the distinctive role of the newspaper.

From an ideological perspective, some people get excited about new technologies and may fail to consider the challenges posed by participatory media and may likewise undervalue those media that are not interactive. As an example, he wondered if a play by Shakespeare was less valuable than a video game because it lacked the same level of apparent interactivity.

From a cultural perspective, he wondered whether enough thought or discussion had been given to the way a newspaper fits into society, for example, the way they organize the world in a way that is more complex than we might recognize.

Finally, there is a political factor to be considered. Newspapers are protected by the First Amendment in ways that it is unclear if other media are; and as such, they serve as valuable political observers – a role that has value. As the news moves from the print to the digital world, wondered Thorburn, would that political and moral independence be preserved?

When his comments we finished, Thorburn turned the stage over to the panelists.

Jerome Armstrong

Armstrong doesn’t spend much time watching TV news or reading newspapers anymore, he gets his news online and reads blogs for opinion. He saw a lack of a progressive voice in the mainstream media and believes that the rise of political blogs was in response to that fact.

There are now millions of people participating in political blogs – as writers or readers – on a monthly basis and these people also tend to be more politically active.

He recognized a symbiotic relationship between blogs and the mainstream media. While bloggers will often use the media as their source for news and issues to write and comment on, the mainstream media also turns to blogs for ideas or to test ideas and opinions.

Newspapers, he believes, will survive by aggregating content from blogs. He offered examples of newspapers already doing this as well as statistics on the amount of traffic newspaper blogs receive.

One of the strengths of blogs, in his opinion, is the sense of community they are able to create. He wondered if this sense of community was something newspapers provided in the past or if it is a new phenomenon.

Pablo Boczkowski

Boczkowski presented partial findings from a study he is working on entitled “When More Media Equals Less.” Basically, it boils down to this: the always-updated nature of news on the Web has had the unanticipated result of creating a consolidation of editorial thinking and story placement and as a result a homogenization of the news.

To illustrate his point, he showed the front pages of the top two Argentinian daily newspapers from the same day and pointed out the fact that both essentially ran the same stories on the same parts of the page. This is indicative of the increasing overlap of the news between outlets and across the media spectrum.

Why might newspapers matter less than before, he asked? Because the have turned the news into a commodity and as a result have decreased their ability to set the agenda and to contribute to a diverse public sphere.

In Argentina (where Boczkowski was born and where this research is focused) the print and online organs of the major outlets have separate operations. Nevertheless, the influence of online news on the newspapers can be clearly seen.

Boczkowski began his analysis in 1995, the year the major dailies began putting their content online. During the time between 1995 and when the Web sites began doing real-time updates (in the early 2000s), the front page overlap between the major dailies was held at a steady state. Once the frequency of the updates began to increase, the overlap between the front pages began to increase, leading to the homogeneity mentioned above.

It was very interesting information and if I am able to get additional details I will provide them (or a link to them) in the future.

He concluded his comments by suggesting that technological changes need to be better understood in order to accurately understand the media landscape. He pointed out that one cannot look at a single media type to see or appreciate this trend and went on to outline the unintended consequences of the constant publishing made possible by the Web:

increased ease of monitoring competitive media
reduced barriers to information acquisition
an intensification of the process of media imitation

All of this leading to the commoditization and homogenization of the news.

Dante Chinni

Chinni began his comments by picking up on the homogenization theme and point out that the homogeneity of local TV news here in the US is truly breathtaking.

He then asked for a show of hands regarding the types of media the audience has used over the past few days. Virtually everyone, it turned out, had read a paper, watched TV news, gone online for news and read a blog. His point was that our media consumption habits are very complicated and that this is a good time to be a news consumer. But that it is also a hard time to be a news consumer because you need to monitor and control your diet.

People, he believes, are going to continue to get news from multiple sources – blogs aren’t going to replace the news but they are making the overall news environment richer.

Top down isn’t going to go away though. In some sense, newspapers will survive – what they will look like, what they cover and how they will be supported though are all unknown at this point. Navigating this time of transition is a challenge. Major metropolitan areas are getting harder to cover because of sprawl – especially when you consider that the revenue is going down and staff is being reduced as a result. The best case scenario for the print papers is a 1% annual decline.

What about the Web?

More people see the stories that are being produced by the newspapers but the papers are missing out on the advertising and classified revenue. People are also reading online for free and so the papers are also missing out on the subscription revenue. According to Chinni, it is hard to see how online advertising will be able to pick up the slack to support the print

So what, asks, what if there were no more newspapers? This would be a problem.

First of all, newspapers have the most reporters on the street at the local and national level. Blogs can do a good job of covering big stories because they are able to respond to events being reported by the mainstream media. Becaue bloggers are generally unpaid and unaccredited they can’t have beat reporters with the time and access to sources to fish around for and break the news.

Second, the mainstream media tries to be objective. Bloggers, on the other hand, cover what they cover because they care about the issue, because they have a strong opinion on the topic or because they have an interest in the outcome. This is OK, as long as it is known up front but there is a place for objectivity.

Finally, because the news environment is so complicated, readers need a guide. That doesn’t mean that people need to accept the view of the world presented by their newspaper, but it helps to have a starting poing. Newspapers are able to provide a credible starting poing because one of their strengths is the collective knowledge of their reporters and editors.

Chinni encouraged the audience not to get caught up in the “paper” aspect of the newspaper – what is important is, be believes, is finding an economic model that will support the base of reporters, objectivity and collective knowledge that newspapers provide.

Following their remarks, the panelists were able to make comments based on one another’s remarks:

Boczkowski: the economic model is a big issue – the online media are doing well for entrepreneurial organizations but not from the perspective of a large news conglomerate.

Armstrong: the commodified nature of the news is why the progressive voice of the mainstream media has been lost; the issue of editorial authority aspect is interesting – there are peer authorities and social authorities and both have roles to play.

Now questions from the audience:

[Not all of the content of the Q&A is captured below]

Q – what about the online versions of print newspapers?

Chinni: that is the way things are going – newspapers are experimenting and trying to understand how best to operate online; he cited Times Select as an example of paid content and also the yet to be activated “My Times” service as a potential step toward customized content.

Armstrong: customization is important – one size fits all isn’t going to last

Boczkowski: in the transition from print to online – you can’t just mimic the content because of the times and places of news consumption – online news is most heavily consumed from 8-5, and people are also doing other things while they are reading – they want bite size news – but the newspapers want more content online – there isn’t the time to do this so they way of crafting a story changes, how the news is considered and produced and consumed is also changing.

Q – what is a newspaper?

Chinni – it is an organization full of people that put out news every day – we can’t get hung up on the ink and the paper.

Armstrong – Google News couldn’t exist w/o the mainstream media – Google is aggregating the news but they are not paying the new sources for it [his response is based on the questioner’s statement that uses Google News as her primary news source.]

Boczkowski – the newspaper also specializes in editorial judgment – in Google, there is no one looking at the news to decide what goes where, they use algorithms.

Q – what about revenue and the possibility making now public papers private again?

Boczkowski – a very complicated question – where papers are sheltered by private ownership they face less pressure. Here in the US, the short-term performance expectations are hurting the newspaper industry – they need to consider the role of the capital markets. Another factor to consider it that in the 60s, the traditional media owned a lot of the information – now, they no longer have the same degree of control of the information market.

Q – I care a lot about the interface and the role of serendipity – in print I see and read more than I would online.

Chinni – a shared view of the news is critical; without it, democracy becomes much harder and we end up arguing about things that are should be recognized as facts. Today, even online, the presentation of the news is based on editorial judgment; but that goes away with customization.

Armstrong – working on politics you can already see this fragmentation of the news – blogs allow a more democratic version of the newspapers.

Boczkowski – today, 50-60% of the clicks on a news Web site are on the homepage. A site may have a hundred thousand pages but most people see only the one; this does not bode well for serendipity.

[tags] MIT, Newspapers, Boczkowski, Jerome Armstrong, Chinni, Thorburn[/tags]

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