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

Mike Elgan | March 26, 2012
Mobile technology and the Internet are transforming news. Whether newspapers are involved is up to them, writes columnist Mike Elgan.

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.


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