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The newspaper industry must change, or become yesterday's news

Mobile technology and the Internet are transforming news. Whether newspapers are involved is up to them.

March 24, 2012 07:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Something catastrophic happened to the newspaper industry this month, a catastrophe that the industry itself does not appreciate: Apple shipped an iPad.

More to the point, Apple shipped the first tablet that represents the future of all tablets, which has a screen of higher quality than the glossiest print magazine.

High-definition tablets will do for print newspapers what high-megapixel cameras did for film.

Why breaking news is broken

People who read news find news stories through a wide range of avenues. They go directly to the websites of specific newspapers, visit Google News, or click on links to news stories in blogs or social media postings, among other things.

There are advantages to electronic news. It can be more timely, more relevant and less expensive than news that's published in print, to name a few.

But there are two ways in which the average approach to electronic news consumption is inferior to reading print newspapers, from the reader's perspective.

First, electronic reading is superficial. I suspect that people think they read news online, but in reality they barely skim the stories they look at. As I've discovered personally, the transition from a print subscription to reading online generally involves being less informed about current events.

Slate magazine's Jack Shafer theorized about why this is the case: First, newspapers are less distracting. Reading a newspaper does not require you to sit at your desk and use the same machine you use to work, read e-mail, check your social networks and engage in countless other diversions that are just a click away.

Electronic news, as it is currently consumed, is a disaster for newspapers, because the industry hasn't figured out how to monetize it.

Shafer also expressed the belief, and I agree with him, that physical newspapers "command" more "respect, engagement and focus from readers." The second advantage of physical newspapers is that they present a broad range of stories, exposing you to topics and ideas that you wouldn't seek out on your own. Electronic news consumption, on the other hand, tends to be more linear, with readers turning to the same subjects, ideas and even opinions each time they go online, thereby reinforcing what they already know and believe.

Electronic news, as it is currently consumed, is a disaster for newspapers, because the industry hasn't figured out how to monetize it. According to an industry report released this month, the newspaper industry gains $1 of electronic news revenue for every $10 it loses on the print side.

More important than revenue losses, in my opinion, are the horribly wasteful costs of running a newspaper. Newspaper editors and publishers might spray coffee all over their screens upon reading this, given the way cutbacks and layoffs are decimating the industry. The problem is that newspapers look at costs and efficiency from a company perspective, not an industry perspective.

In fact, the whole model of what a newspaper is and how it's put together is perfectly antiquated and obsolete, a throwback to the telegraph era.

Before radio, newspapers held a near monopoly on the delivery of information about events in the world, the nation and local communities. In the last century, newspapers fulfilled a wide variety of other roles, offering public notices of every description, plus opinions, games (like crossword puzzles) weather forecasts, arts reviews, display advertising, classified ads, calendars of events and even serialized fiction.

Newspapers were the indispensable, all-purpose information source for educated citizens.

Today, that description is no longer applicable to newspapers. Instead, it applies to the Internet. But all the myriad roles that newspapers played are each handled by separate organizations online. Game sites offer games. Weather sites offer weather. Craigslist and other such sites offer classifieds. Advertising networks sell and place the ads, and so on.

The transition is not just from paper to electronic media, but from doing everything to doing only one thing. Unfortunately, that doesn't work from a business perspective. Display and classified ads were where the money came from, in addition to subscription revenue.



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