How the internet is changing news consumption habits
I’ve made a living for two decades in the media business, and at times have subscribed to three newspapers, along with countless magazines. But now I’m wondering: Is it time to ditch the hard copy, save those trees, and avoid the weekly chore of recycling a bundle of papers?
This obviously won’t help the newspaper business, which is hemorrhaging subscribers, nor my friends who still work in the ink biz, but I’m realizing I no longer need paper. Newsprint’s a dinosaur.
A few years ago, I’d often plop down on the couch with two newspapers and a cup of coffee. Now I barely look at one paper, but am getting more news and analysis than ever before. My two holdouts: a full subscription to the Washington Post and the Sunday edition of The New York Times. That’s deceptive, though, because I religiously read the NYT online (for free, as a print subscriber). I also subscribe to the Wall Street Journal online.
How has my reading changed? I get more information on the things I care about online, and more easily store the stories I want for later research (relying on del.icio.us or the “save story” button at the Times website). But I tend to miss out on the small items out of left field that would never catch my eye online. I read less of the long-form stories, which is ironic since it’s my favorite form and one I enjoy writing. In fact, when I see a long story online that really interests me, I tend to grab the paper on the couch and read it. I may also print out the story, but the sad fact is I print out far more stories than I read. (I know, it’s a waste of paper).
This raises a couple of crucial issues that are the daily grist of newsrooms and boardrooms. First, how do newspapers keep readers paying for a service that is less useful (the newsprint) and which faces loads of competition? And if readers won’t pay for newsprint, and the ads that come with the news, how will the paper support its primary mission and expense of reporting the news? The interesting thing about this conundrum is that the primary product that newspapers deliver, news and analysis and opinion, is thriving. People want that. But fewer of them each year want it delivered in a paper format.
Now, electronic delivery cuts the expense of paper, but unless consumers or online advertisers pay for the news, it won’t get done. It’s not sustainable. (That’s why the Wall Street Journal charges for its online subscription, forgoing many more readers in exchange for cash.)
So what will happen? My gut feeling is that news as we know it will morph into something else. Technology always defines the medium (whether in music, art, or media). Once freed from the constraints that paper imposes, reporters can use many more tools to do what they’ve always done. This is beginning to occur, but it’s still too early to say definitively what works. The downside is that we’ll get new emphasis on whiz-bang gizmos and also a lot more self-indulgent crap. But being a market, consumers will flock to what does work and ignore the stuff that doesn’t. And what will work is what’s always worked: breaking stories, doing eyebrow-raising investigative work, and providing top-notch opinion, humor, and insight. In the meantime, smart companies or more likely entrepreneurs will need to come up with the new business models that make the new medium pay for itself.
So where does that leave me? I’ll probably ditch my newspaper subscriptions in the coming year and just rely on online news, even for sources I have to pay for. There’s a lot of environmental benefits in that (the trees saved, the energy burned up by printing presses and plants, the delivery trucks, etc.) but that’s not why I’m doing it. The old paper just doesn’t work for me any more. Like other former newspaper readers, I’m propelling the creative destruction and am looking for something new to sprout from the rubble.