Newspapers and the nature of the Internet

I live in Greenwich and love the area. Interesting things have gone on there for centuries. There’s a regular event in The Greenwich Tavern (The Greenwich Series) where people discuss what they do and what interests them. I tweet a bit about Greenwich as well as the media so I was tracked down and asked to present on newspapers. What I came up with were five examples of how news organisations are working around the nature of the Internet. Here’s some of what I said…

What the Internet theoretically does is solve a major headache for newspapers – distribution. Newspapers are partly full of content experts – the journalists – and partly full of logistics experts who do a magic trick every day. They ensure the second freshest thing in your supermarket, after bread, is your newspaper. Now that content is straight to your device. In theory that should be good news for newspapers.

But the Internet brings an oversupply of information – plus a different challenge.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist wrote this about the nature of the Internet, “I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more but then I realised that the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants – silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves”.

Put another way, reading anything other than breaking news isn’t urgent – if you need to know anything, it can always be found on the net later.

From a personal perspective that sort of sounds great – we’ve outsourced our knowledge to the internet in a similar way to how we outsourced mental arithmetic to the calculator.

Nicholas Carr thinks it sounds dangerous – he wrote a book called The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we read, think and remember. A central problem, he says, is that we mistakenly think human memory is finite like computer memory.

But, he says, “We don’t constrain our mental powers when we store new long term memories. We strengthen them. With each expansion of our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence. The web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing the inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches”.

Getting wise is a joy but it’s so easy to leave knowledge on the virtual shelf. Steve Jobs famously said, people just don’t read anymore.

The question is how do you make people read content, not just be satisfied that it adds to an online encyclopaedia – should they ever need it?

I’m going to give you 5 examples of how urgency is being created:

One tactic has been to create apps with the feel of a daily ‘issue’, which gives it a date stamp and a feeling that you should read it today. And it is ‘finishable’ in a way that a newspaper website, with their thousands of pages, are not. These factors nudge people towards reading it today. The digital editor of The Economist says of their app, “really what we sell is the feeling of being informed when you get to the end”.

Secondly, Twitter. This is from a report called Post Industrial Journalism “one of the great surprises of Twitter, a medium built around “short” and “now,” is how much demand it has exposed for long-form writing…, a recent startup, filters through people’s Twitter feeds and recommends the most widely viewed links from previous 24 hours; a remarkable amount of what gets surfaced is not singing cats but long, careful pieces of reporting or opinion”. Newspapers employ social media editors and a lot of their time is taken up on twitter.

Thirdly, audience interaction. There’s a parallel with another medium here. The TV industry are thinking about this as a way of stopping people just recording programmes on PVRs. The founder of Zeebox says he sees a “third phase of TV – where the content is not just the video, the package is you and other people watching”.
A TV example is a US show called Million Second Quiz which allows viewers to play along on second screens. If viewers beat the contestants on TV they get flown to the studio to take part.

My example of audience interaction from the world of newspapers is far less showbiz. The FT has launched a service called ‘FT Newslines’ which is a premium service for sharing annotations in the margins of their online business articles. It may only be used by academics and analysts to share thoughts but it shows the FT are thinking about getting a sub group to engage deeply with their content shortly after publication.

There’s also technology available that allows you to click a button next to an article you’re reading and up pops someone else reading the same article as you – so you can have a Skype type conversation about it. That would be weird if you didn’t know anything about them but could be good if they were people worth knowing.

Fourthly, repackaging. Expect to see existing content repackaged in a way that is more enticing for people to read right away. An offline example is the i newspaper which is really a cut down version of The Independent. They only have five editorial staff and their mission is to get time pressed people to read Independent content.

Online, we might see the commissioning of more longform articles because they can be cut, broken down, repackaged, they can be used to produce more tweets about different parts of them and exist, in the background, as contextual information for people who want to know more. We will see more uses of single articles like this.

Fifthly, start again from where people left off. In a Harvard lecture last year Google’s head of news predicted that face recognition technology would be employed to remember how much a person had read about a certain news story so that appropriate content can be served to them. No need to read over old ground or feel left behind. As soon as your newspaper site recognises your face it knows exactly what you know about the Middle East and continues from where you left off.

If the face recognition part of that seems farfetched, it’s less of a stretch to imagine that this could happen depending on a subscriber logging in. Your login details tell the newspaper site where you left off last time. It’s a reason to stay loyal to one site.

The consultancy firm Enders call these types of examples Services. They wrote “it is now services rather than technology per se or even content per se that consumers will pay for”.

So there’s hope – such services could, potentially bring in revenue. Such services are being announced all the time. When you hear about them ask yourself if they will create an urgent reason to read content now? That factor could determine their success.

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