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Newspapers are evolving, but they'll never die

There’s a general gnashing of teeth and wiping of brows whenever the “d” subject is brought up in media circles.  How will tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapping survive the onslaught of the powerful noughts and ones of the internet?

peter thompson future of newspapersNewspapers are still finding their place in a constantly evolving digital era. But the sleeping giants have awoken and smart online models are being trundled out in a bid to retain readers and advertisers.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a huge fan of newspapers – I read them avidly on my iPad. Often I read hard copy versions. It’s what’s in them that counts to me – and I suspect every other consumer of news.

So what are the new popular online models for delivering digital news?

As far as I can see there are three; I call them the unbreakable model; the leaky paywall and its hybrid, the noble content model; and the free model.

The unbreakable paywall model is manifest in The Times – being English I feel no compunction to add the descriptive 'of London'. It’s a Murdoch publication and it adheres to the Murdoch philosophy of 'why give it away?'.

If you want to read The Times online, you pay, albeit at a lower price than you would if you purchased the paper daily. And it’s worth it. The content is great. There are more images and they are sharper and bigger. The content is regularly updated so you get the news as it happens. Unfortunately, only you can read it. You can’t email or tweet or Facebook the content.

The leaky paywall is where you get some content for free and if you pass a certain level – normally between 10 and 23 articles a month – you start paying. But you can share the content.

A clone of the leaky paywall is the Boston Globe – there you get junior editorial for free. But 'noble' content written by the paper’s more illustrious reporters, you pay for.  I don’t think I’d like to be the editor of the Globe having to tell the television reporter his or her content didn’t make the noble grade.

Finally, there’s the model used by the Guardian and Daily Mail in the UK. Content is free, to attract millions of readers and the papers try to monetise that relationship. So how do you monetise news? Via the data is one way.

Imagine this. Say five million people every day read the New York Times travel section online. That’s a huge potential database of people interested in travel and surely of value to travel companies and airlines.

Better still, what’s stopping the New York Times from aligning with a travel agency altogether? It’s a great opportunity to leverage the goodwill and trust consumers have for the paper while opening a valuable revenue stream. To survive in these tough times, newspapers will need to marry digital strategy with the power of their consumer bases. 

The problem is much of the old guard in newspaper-land has been fighting the digital revolution when it should have been embracing it. As the old guard changes, so does the momentum to investigate new ways of monetising newspapers’ huge databanks.

Will this signal the demise of the printed page? Not likely. Ever tried to read your iPad in the bath?  And what about your six-section weekend edition? You may read your digital edition daily, even twice or three times a day but you may also want to come back to a bookmarked weekend magazine article days later while the wife watches Coro.

I have been known to be wrong, but I believe there will always be people who want to clutch a physical newspaper, to feel the newsprint and manually turn the pages.

That is not to say the physical and digital product should be clones of each other. The digital product may have a completely different appeal, perhaps to the younger more mobile audience. The physical paper might suit those with a more sedentary lifestyle. Those are legitimate options.

The role of the journalist is changing. As your paper’s Middle East correspondent, you will find you need to be not only a skilled scribe, but also capable of producing a two minute video and an audio clip for the paper’s digital platform.

Then there’s quality. Newspapers will never die because they support quality journalism. In the future there may be fewer printed newspapers but there will be huge demand for top quality journalists. Who else is going to keep the Twittersphere honest?

Finally, there will be more alliances with other media. TV companies and newspapers will share content – I’ll show your video if you run a link on your website, perhaps.

In the 1930s radio was going to kill newspapers. In the 1940s it was cinema – think Pathé news - that was going to deal the deathblow. TV in the 1950s was definitely sending papers to the morgue. In the 2000s it was the internet’s turn.

Certainly the newspaper industry has been slow to adapt, succeeding in a cosy post-WWII cocoon. But the old-guard is fading away, replaced by keen young media people who appreciate the value stored in newspapers. And some of them aren’t so young – Warren Buffett has just been on a buying spree among community papers in the States.

So that’s why newspapers will never die. Oh, and here’s something for your next game of Trivial Pursuit – there are more words on the front page of the Daily Telegraph than in a 30 minute TV news bulletin.

UK media agency head Peter Thomson was in New Zealand this week to present the keynote address to the News Works Newspaper Advertising Awards