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Newspapers in Multimedia Metamorphosis, Part 1

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Newspapers are as dead as the trees that they're printed on.

At least that’s the opinion of some market watchers and media critics in the blogosphere. In both that world and the real one, there’s been a lot of talk about how newspapers everywhere are losing readership. More and more people, especially the young and tech-savvy, are getting their news online. And while it’s not very likely that newspapers will go the way of the dinosaur any time soon, the erosion of readership has been clear and undeniable.

It’s taken a while for newspapers to recognize and respond to the problem, but recently there’s been a flurry of activity on newspaper websites, as publications across the country have finally adopted the attitude of "If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em." A year or two ago, most U.S. newspapers were merely giving lip service to their websites.

Today many newspapers are beefing up their online news coverage and investing real effort and money in their websites. And they’ve discovered a little something called multimedia, including AV slideshows and TV-style news videos. New positions on newspaper staffs have opened up, usually called "Multimedia Editor" positions. In the newspaper newsrooms around the country, there’s a lot of experimentation going on. These are exciting times for journalists.

Framing the Issues, Watching the Market
Mark Glaser is a self-described "media watcher" who runs a fascinating and influential blog called MediaShift, which is hosted at PBS.org. Glaser believes that when it comes to newspapers losing readership, people have been framing the issue incorrectly. "They’ve been lashing out and blaming people like Google and Craigslist," he says. "Instead, I think people should see it as an opportunity for newspapers to gain more audience, gain more money, and do better in the long run."

Josh Hawkins, senior marketing manager for Brightcove, a company that is busy setting up what it calls "internet video channels" for newspapers, believes that newspapers have bright futures ahead of them. "Newspapers already have significant brand loyalty and significant online communities built around their brands, and it seems to me to make sense that they would tap that traffic to open the door to the new revenue streams that streaming video may bring them."

As a 17-year veteran photojournalist (and now resident multimedia guru) at the The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington, Colin Mulvany has seen readership deterioration firsthand. "Yes, we’re losing people," he says. "They are bolting. The younger people, they are screenagers. They’ve been raised in front of screens. And they are never coming back to traditional media. They are never going to be newspaper subscribers. So the only thing you can do is try to capture them with your online site. And to do that you need to give them something that is interesting and compelling." Something like video, for example.

As evidence of the success that online efforts can bring to newspapers, Glaser points to The Washington Post. "The Post now has this huge international and national audience that they didn’t have before," he says, "because they were never really a national paper before. They were a local paper. Now they have this massive, huge influx of people, from all over the country and all over the world, using their site."

And this increase in viewership at newspaper websites (such as that of The Washington Post) may be raising their bottom lines overall, says Glaser. "The Newspaper Association of America has put out survey after survey showing that newspaper sites have been going up in readership. And so have their revenues. Every quarter they go up. Now, whether that’s going to replace what they are losing in print—that’s the big question. But over time I think things will change. Newspapers may not make as much money as they used to make with print. That’s up in the air. And video may be one way that they will close the gap."

Two Kinds of Convergence
As newspapers add more multimedia to their websites, they are straying farther and farther from the print world and into new territory.

Eventually, say the pundits, the concept of the print newspaper as we’ve known it will die, and in its place will arise new entities, whether we call them newsgathering companies, new media news organizations, or something else. In the future the demarcation between newspapers and television channels will be blurry. There will be no standalone newspapers. There will be newsgathering and distributing companies with print arms. Print will be just one media of many used by media companies.

And as time goes on, we may also see individual traditional media companies (TV stations, newspapers, radio stations) merging and consolidating in efforts to boost efficiency and reduce staffing costs. They will be forming so-called "converged newsrooms." In these catch-all newsrooms, news will be the raw material but its output will take many forms, with print being just one.

By the way, just to make things confusing, pundits are using the term "convergence" to refer to two different trends. One is the trend already mentioned—for different media companies (TV stations, newspapers, radio station, magazines) to try to combine and consolidate their separate newsgathering operations. The other kind of convergence is when a single media company (such as a newspaper) tries to combine its now-separate internal print and online news operations.

For an example of convergence, Glaser points to The Tampa Tribune, which he calls "one of the more pioneering efforts." In 2000, the newspaper began to create a "converged newsroom" in cooperation with a local TV station, WFLA Channel 8. But this isn’t a good example of two rivals getting together, because in this case both companies (newspaper and TV station) are owned by the same parent company, Media General. So the decision to stop competing and start cooperating came from on high rather than from the pressures of the marketplace. And the jury is apparently still out on the Tampa Tribune converged-newsroom project. "A lot of what they thought they’d get out of the convergence, they haven’t really gotten," says Glaser. "They thought there would be a lot more synergies and a lot more revenue, and it has been very, very slow. A lot of people say that the Tampa Tribune experiment was successful in some ways but didn’t succeed so well in others."

Interestingly, The Tampa Tribune just recently announced staff cuts, apparently as part of the ongoing convergence process. An April press release from Media General framed the move as a "performance improvement." Seventy staffers out of a total employee base of 1,335 were eliminated. "Our newspaper is experiencing the challenges of changing reader needs and fundamental shifts in spending by our traditional advertisers," said Tampa Tribune president and publisher Denise Palmer in the press release. "We are reducing resources in areas that are in decline and investing in areas of growth, including local news and the internet."

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