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Why the Web Is Better Suited for News

  |  January 5, 2009   |  Comments

The sound of print's death rattle become louder and clearer.

After a year filled with some topsy-turvy events and major changes to the economy, it seemed fitting that The Pew Research Center for the People & The Press would release this report showing that the Internet has surpassed newspapers as the primary news source for most Americans. While releasing this study right before Christmas may have seemed like dropping a big ol' lump of coal into the collective stockings of the already struggling United States newspaper industry, its end-of-the-year release marks an important transition in the Internet's growth and how we've all come to rely more on electronic media. It also represents a major indicator of one of the main lessons that the Web has taught us -- a lesson we must heed if we're going to be successful in the coming year.

So what's the lesson? Think about it outside the obvious context of "new" media versus "old" media. The main lesson involves why people turn to one medium over another. It's also a lesson in why not paying attention to media appropriateness -- both for consumers and for advertisers -- means inevitable doom.

Let's first look at the consumer side. Overall, consumers have several choices for news. They've got print media (primarily newspapers), television, radio, and the Internet. Looking deeper into the Pew study, the stats show that the Internet has passed not only newspapers but radio as well as a primary news source and is second only to television among all users. If you look to people under 30, the gap between Web and television narrows, with nearly 60 percent of those under 30 reporting that they get their news from the Web and the same percentage reporting they get their news from television. Interestingly, the closure of this gap has occurred at the expense of television, with the under-30 viewership declining around 10 percent between September 2007 and the end of 2008.

The question, then is, why? There seem to be a couple of reasons. First, teens and young adults aren't all that interested in the news to begin with -- and nearly a third report they aren't interested in the news at all. Perhaps more telling: two-thirds of Americans say that traditional journalism is out of touch with what they want from the news. While 70 percent see journalism as "important to the quality of life in their communities," 64 percent are dissatisfied with their community news coverage. And while old-media journalists continue to decry the quality of online news (usually pointing to crackpot sites and histrionic blogs as examples), nearly one-third of Americans surveyed said that they found online news to be more trustworthy than traditional news sources. Only 22 percent said the same about newspapers, 21 percent about television, and 15 percent about radio.

The "trustworthiness" issue is interesting, considering what a beating the online press has taken in the old media as being a little fast and loose with the facts. However, with the rise of traditional "print" media moving to the Web, the complaint seems pretty silly. "The New York Times" online is still the New York Times -- only better.

Why? Well, the reason why is the reason that I believe that online news is destined to top all other news sources: it's just better. Here's a little chart that lays out some characteristics of each medium:

Media Access Cost Timeliness Synchronous Attention Requirement Interactivity Multimedia Business Cost Socialness
Print Very High Yes Low Yes High None No High Low
Online High No Very High No High Very High Yes Low Very High
TV Very High No Medium Yes Medium None Some High Medium
Radio Very High No High Yes Low None No High Medium

Basically, print doesn't have a lot going for it besides its ubiquity. Most print media costs money (the exception being free papers which seem to be weathering the storm pretty well), require your full attention, aren't interactive (both as a medium and in terms of being able to offer the consumer a voice), don't offer much in the way of multimedia, are expensive businesses to run, and don't have much "socialness" in terms of interaction with others, sharing content, or being able to experience them as a group.

Television and radio have a bit more going for them: they're free (not counting cable access charges), don't require full attention from the viewer/listener, have some value as social activities, and are easy for consumers to access. On the other hand the cost of running a TV or radio business is very high. They have limited interactivity (radio has call-in shows and TV is starting to become more "interactive" as new technologies come to the fore), and their timeliness is somewhat limited except for breaking news and special reports. And, like print media, both radio and TV are "synchronous" media giving the user little or no control over time and method of consumption.

On one hand, online journalism has few of these problems. As Internet access has become nearly ubiquitous and the cost of computers has come way down (not to mention the rise of mobile access devices such as the iPhone), consumer barriers to entry for online journalism have dropped to levels as low as that of television. Online media is extremely timely, offers interactivity, offers social interaction, and has multimedia content to expand on the textual content. Add to that the fact that starting an online news site costs far less than starting a print publication, television station, or radio station and you've got a business model and a medium that has a lot more to offer than any of the "old" media.

Perhaps the biggest issue so far with the transition from print to the Web involves advertising revenue. Not only do studies show that news media is less effective at conveying advertising, but print media has always had a stranglehold on local advertising and classifieds. Classifieds have become a problem for both newspapers and the Web with the rise of outlets like Craigslist and Monster, and nobody seems to have had a good answer for this yet (besides buying these properties and incorporating them into their news content). Newspapers are still doing a way better job at dealing with local advertising, but I predict that as more newspapers fall by the wayside (or start to curtail daily delivery like in Detroit, online local advertising will continue to rise. For now it seems like local online advertising seems to do best on sites oriented toward local content such as local media and review sites.

As geotargeting technology improves and advertisers wake up to the fact that online is eclipsing offline, we'll probably see a bigger shift to local advertising online in the future. It also seems inevitable that there will be some major consolidation between media and niche or single-purpose local sites such as Craigslist, job sites, and city guides or review sites. Why this hasn't happened yet probably has more to do with the "old" media not wanting to give up the control they've traditionally enjoyed as well as advertising media people not getting over their own individual hang-ups over what online is supposed to be for.

The bottom line: given all factors, online is a better medium for news. Controlled for income levels, it's likely that we've now reached a point where print and online offer equal access. And yeah, you can't easily take your computer with you to read the news on the train. Still, the rise of ubiquitous wireless access -- both through mobile carriers and new citywide WiMax technologies such as XHOM -- anytime/anywhere access has become a reality. Couple this access with the rise in digital paper-based readers such as Amazon's Kindle and the sound of print's death rattle become a lot louder and clearer. Sure, you're never going to be able to wrap your fish, pack your glassware, or line your birdcages with the new media (perhaps there's a business opportunity in there somewhere!), but it now seems that the death of the daily newspaper as we know it is at hand.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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