Let’s face it, print media is finished

21 June 2014 italian version

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

The ongoing debate about nostalgia and innovation

The theme of innovation is always at the center of the digital media debate, with the risk of getting stuck in a meta-debate on the meaning of the term and its implications.

In 2012, a group of businessmen led by Aaron Kushner – with no significant experience in the publishing industry – took over The Orange County Register, a Southern Californian newspaper, with the aim of investing in paper and putting a fairly expensive paywall on online content. The experiment failed a few weeks ago, causing the reaction of the media critic Clay Shirky. In an article titled “Nostalgia and Newspapering” published on his blog, Shirky points at reporters (above all Ken Doctor of NiemanLab and Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review) who, in the last few months, did not have the courage to denounce the obvious anachronism of this strategy. According to the critic, reporters have suggested to those who still entertain some nostalgia for the past and journalism students (who can hardly get rid of ‘paper’ fantasies) that there is still some remaining hope for this model, stealing time and space from strategies for the future. The result has been a fairly tough wide-ranging debate.The most personal reply was that of Ryan Chittum who criticizes Shirky for a lack of knowledge of the matter whereas Ken Doctor intervened in the discussion by clarifying his point of view. He says he has no nostalgism, although the industry of old newspapers still benefits from a certain respectable importance from the local point of view both in economic and democratic terms. Updated links and opinions on the debate can be found here.

[tweetable alt=”«We don’t have much time left to manage the transition away from print».”]We don’t have much time left to manage the transition away from print. We are statistically closer to the next recession than to the last one[/tweetable]
— Clay Shirky

The other exchange of views this week takes its cue from “The disruption machine“, an essay by Jill Lepore, published on the latest issue of The New Yorker, against the myth of perpetual innovation and the exaltation of the term “disruption“. This word generally defines the irruption of a phenomenon capable of shaking the status quo and has been adopted as a buzzword, a symbol of inescapable technological progress (“the gospel of innovation”). Lepore argues (a critical summary of the essay can be read on Slate) by analyzing the theory of The Innovator’s Dilemma, which is contained in the 1997 book of the same name by Clayton Christensen, professor at the Harvard Business School. From the journalistic point of view, Lepore seeks to dismantle the theory of Christensen (according to whom, in terms of strategic management, at some point you have to choose whether to think of new products and new customers or continue on the hitherto successful road), explaining that it cannot be applied to journalism. She objects that it is not a commercial product or an industry, therefore it should not be subject to the rules of this theory “founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse“. Timothy B. Lee of Vox.com reminds Lepore that while journalism cannot be a business by its nature, newspapers and what journalists produce certainly are. The inability to see this division without knowing how to manage it (combining service and market) is one of the reasons for the deep, current crisis. The debate is in progress and updates can be followed here.

Producing content which has sense

Experimenting is essential, especially in a crowded marketplace in which anyone, at a low cost, can compete with legacy media. However, innovation is not enough, just as “marketing or ‘digital’ tactics” are not enough either. This is what the new media expert Thomas Baekdal has written on the need to find a quality approach to news production that may appear necessary and ‘winning’ for readers. Baekdal starts with an analysis of the Innovation Report of the New York Times, which showed signs of decline in terms of unique visitors, despite the continued rise in subscriptions. In the document, the Times continues to define itself as the “best journalism” without realizing that its readers do not feel involved in the production of something which makes “sense” for the newspaper, running to read the homepages of the competitors. The NYT still does not think in a ‘digital’ way, Baekdal explains, often becoming superfluous reading for the user: the key is to offer “relevant” journalism to polarize the 300 posts a day downloaded with the hope of intercepting  the most readers possible.

The need to involve readers, without wasting the time they dedicate to reading an article, is the main theme of the article written by Jeff Israely of Worldcrunch published by NiemanLab. Israely focuses on the kind of content that would best be conveyed on the Web, starting from the above-mentioned disadvantaged position of old media, harassed by online competition – especially on Facebook – on various types of content (also referring to the “gradual convergence” between journalistic content and marketing). According to Israely, editorial-type products should be placed in an ideal location between the two axes that divide the production intent: [tweetable]”Axis 1: the aim of entertaining or Informing; Axis 2: the aim of saving or sucking the end user’s time”[/tweetable]. The continuous search for the attention of the reader has been at the center of worldwide journalistic debate for months, but Israely seeks to emphasize the functional aspect. The time dedicated to potential news tools has grown, as has the need to get news on new devices that are offered. Filling pages is useless, if they are meaningless to the reader.

Readers do not like boring stuff but they do not admit it

On the other hand, readers continue to behave in a totally incoherent manner, at least according to their statements and the comparison with the metrics and this article by Derek Thompson of The Atlantic. The Reuters Institute has asked thousands of people all over the world to say what kind of news they considered most important. The result is this

Domestic, local, economic, political and international news excel. Analysis of website data, according to the views reached by single items and their issues, however, tells another story (as demonstrated in late 2013 by the list of the top stories of the year). [tweetable]”Ask readers what they want, and they’ll tell you vegetables. Watch them quietly, and they’ll mostly eat candy“[/tweetable]. Soft issues dominate, and it is not just a typically online trend (at most, thanks to digital tools their numbers can be checked), but what – Thompson continues – is called fluency in psychology, preferring simple thoughts, avoiding nuances and problematizations. In this sense, Thompson says, [tweetable]”There are two problems with hard news: It’s hard and it’s news”[/tweetable], a “sad truth” with which to contend.

What is certain is that somehow social networks, which represent a large part of the incoming traffic for online newspapers, have supported this trend. On Twitter – Danah Boyd has written this week on the website of the World Economic Forum – you need to be your own curator both for personal image and for work, with the same tools of others, on a platform that does not guarantee that all your followers (though numerous) will read the published content (they should be all online, all on Twitter, all available to read). Facebook meanwhile has opted for the path of the algorithm, which awards content that Facebook itself considered valid – tending to reinforce “existing biases”. In this sense, according to Boyd, social media rewrites the news landscape in non-meritocratic terms, bringing online production – Matt Saccaro of TheDailyDot says – to a formal stylistic and content uniformity that Choire Sicha of TheAwl has captured in this way


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