Tuesday, 30 June 2009

"News, news, news - that is what we want. You can't beat news in a newspaper."

The one thing I always fear with every new brilliant digi gizmo/application/network/invention/etc is that, 9 times out of 10, it provides yet another means for my obsessive need to stay up to date with news, no matter how irrelevant, to take control. The side that screams “check what’s going on out there – just in case”. The side that keeps clicking refresh even though you know nothing has changed in the last 22 seconds.

From my BBC homepage to Google News Alerts; to RSS feeds and journalist blogs; to Digg stories and iPlayer; and, of course, the BlackBerry for that 10 minute walk back from the tube. And then comes Twitter, a constant source of updating news fuelled by community and conversation. News by the second!

Yet, for some reason, I still try and read The Times in its full archaic (alas non-broadsheet) paper glory on the way into the office.

At a basic level a newspaper is “a publication containing new, information and advertising” all of which I can now get more quickly and more of online than I can in physical form. (Admittedly I can’t get online on the tube but there’s always a cheeky podcast.) So what’s it giving me that I’m lacking online?

Extra content and insight? All those opinion pieces, reviews, even obituaries amongst the daily news was my first thought.

Much as I enjoy the non-news elements of a good broadsheet I can certainly get more of them online. In fact, traditional newspapers are starting to get pretty good at providing this on their own online destinations. I can get more football info from thetimesonline than I can in their Monday supplement.

Even more worryingly, some recent stats from Moody’s Investor Services suggest that only 14% of a paper’s operating costs are spent on content with some 70% going towards making it a physical item (printing, distribution, etc).

So if it’s not its contents, what is it?

For me, I think it’s a trust thing. The authority a newspaper brings.

Back in ancient Rome Acta Diurna, or Daily Acts, were carved onto stone and placed in the forum by the local government for all to see. Daily news was tangible, permanent and from an authoritative source. Does a piece of paper with that familiar well-fonted title play the same role for me?

Authority’s an interesting area for news. Personally, I’ll ignore the likes of The Sun when reading football transfer news and take a large chunk of tweets from people I’d never even heard of with a pinch of salt. But if The Times says it, I’ll listen. Eric Schmidt’s infamous quote rings true: “The internet is fast becoming a cesspool where false information thrives”.

Jefferson once stated that “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government”. I guess this poses the question of who do you trust to keep you ‘well-informed’? The words ‘The Times’ or ‘Guardian’ give me that trust, reliability and authority and are best manifested, like with the Romans, in their full paper form.

You could argue that newspapers could simply take their name online and, indeed, some of them are. But they’re still playing catch up. Murdoch was spot on when he said “Big will not beat small anymore. It will be the fast beating the slow”.

There has been a fundamental shift in the transmission of news. The likes of Twitter have democratised journalism and rendered communities quicker and more agile at providing the news that newspapers once served to them. Until papers find a way to harness this and, in my opinion, harbour it with their own authority they will always be chasing the pack.

(NB I think the BBC is a good example of using UGC alongside their authority with submitted pictures etc, but they haven’t had to hurdle a transition from newsstand to browser.)

This needn’t be a threat to journalism either. Many digital streams actually promote the individual more than the group (I’m more likely to follow Iain Tait on Twitter than I am Poke for example).

This debate will keep rattling around I’m sure. Chat about monetising news online, advertising models, death of journalism, etc, etc. One thing I am sure of though, you might be able to take away The Funday Times, but you can’t take away the place on my dining-table for the papers on a Sunday.

PS As an aside, it’s interesting to see the likes of the New York Times accommodating online behaviour offline by devoting their second and third pages to abstracts of the paper's content.