Bridging the Gap  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   June/July 2005

Bridging the Gap   

Newspapers must invest much more heavily in their Web sites.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


The message from young adults to newspapers is unequivocal: We're just not that into you. We know you're trying to change, but you'll always be bulky, messy and old by the time you hit the stoop. We're seeing the Internet now. Sorry.

For anyone still in denial, Merrill Brown's recent report to the Carnegie Corp. of New York on the news habits of 18- to 34-year-olds will be an eye-opener. Among that group, the Internet solidly leads other media in categories such as frequency and ease of use. Newspapers, Brown explains, "have no clear strengths and are the least preferred choice for local, national and international news." They rank dead last in categories such as timeliness, usefulness and entertainment value. Not surprisingly, young adults plan to spend even more time with online news in the future.

Meanwhile, many newspaper executives continue to operate as though a major revolution in communication technology can be stemmed by better marketing. They keep saying things like "Profits are up" and "People will always read newspapers" and "The Web just isn't a viable business platform." They're investing in front page redesigns and freebie tabloids meant to hook 'em young. (The commuter tabloids have achieved some success because they're free and fit people's lives, a lot like the Internet.) Let's not even touch the circulation-pumping ploys. After all is done, one basic problem remains: Newspapers are printed on paper.

The excuse newspapers give for clinging to print like a life raft is that it's the most profitable product they've got. True, many advertisers still accept diminishing returns (growing costs, shrinking circulation) in a medium they know over a much larger audience in a medium they don't. But why is that? Because newspapers keep telling them print is their only option. For a while that worked, but now advertisers are following the audiences. Researchers project online ad spending in the United States will grow 20 percent or more in 2005 for the third year in a row.

Maybe it only appears that newspaper executives are in denial about all of this. Maybe they're trying to sustain enough revenue from print to fund a smooth bridge to the future. That would make a lot of sense. But if that were true, wouldn't there be some evidence of bridge-building?

Every paper has a Web site, but spending on content and development is still paltry. In its annual report on the state of the news media, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that despite growing audiences, news organizations are reluctant to invest in the Web and "have imposed more cutbacks in their Internet operations than in their old media." Instead of investing forward, news managers are still fixated on figuring out how to get a generation of young people to subscribe to the print edition. If that's the question burning in their brains, they still don't get it.

And if they're waiting for their Web operations to be profitable before they take them seriously, they really don't get it. One of the worst strategic mistakes in the early history of online news wasn't failing to charge for content; it was handing out virtually free ad space, or not bothering to sell advertising at all. News managers say they've tried to lead advertisers to the Web, but many of them still don't value their own Web sites enough to make a convincing pitch. If they'd applied the same bravado to developing online business models as they do to denying the demise of print, they'd be a lot further along today.

They also need to invest seriously in new-media staff, research and product development. It will take a boatload of resources and brainpower to figure out how to thrive among indigenous Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo! that are light-years ahead in terms of understanding what users and advertisers want. If newspapers started investing in new media instead of throwing money down the print pit, they'd be doing themselves a tremendous favor.

A few resource-rich organizations do seem to be bridging the gap--holding the old model while reaching for the new. In the April/May issue of AJR, Rachel Smolkin wrote about the Washington Post's efforts to create a more usable print edition and reach the commuter audience with a mini metro publication. At the same time, the Post is an almost perfect model of new-media innovation, with its growing network of media properties (including Newsweek and Slate) and substantial editorial force. The site prides itself on its flush roster of online discussions with prominent guests and its ability to send multimedia reporters to Iraq and Afghanistan. Washingtonpost.com won 29 of 90 awards at the 2004 White House News Photographers Video Awards competition.

Even for an outfit like the Post, the transition from old media to new could be craggy. For companies that don't have the foresight or resources to focus on both at the same time, it might be impossible. To lose some of our venerable newsrooms that way would be unfortunate. Mainstream media have many larger issues to work out--trust, transparency and newsgathering resources to name a few--but it'd be a shame to die over ink and paper.

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