Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Print Media Transition

Newspapers and magazines are having to find new business models as people turn increasingly to the internet for their content. That describes me: I haven't bought a newspaper for years. I still find the odd magazine convenient for when I'm on the go or the couch, but not much of that either.

This is a good trend. It's great for the environment: even if you recycle, there's a great deal of energy and pollution involved in thick daily newspapers. It's great for readers: I have hundreds of news sources bookmarked, categorized by type of publication.

So far, it's not so great for the publishers as they struggle to make their operations profitable. I find that the transition to electronic media is making some mistakes.

The biggest problem online is advertising. Advertising should enhance a publication, and so far, electronic media has not figured that out. Print ads tend to be informative, while online ads tend to not be. In the old print model ads were an integral part of the paper, and people flipped through the paper looking for sales, coupons, promotions, special events, etc. I would like papers to reproduce their print ads online - especially local papers where the print ads tell you about local businesses and events, zoning applications, etc. Papers can keep all their current online ads. Many magazines also have interesting ads that are lost online (think the back of the New Yorker or NYT Magazine... or even comic books).

Next, online publications are becoming too inefficient: it takes too long to open a page. The worst offender is the Huffington Post, where when you click a link you might as well go out for coffee. The Washington Post has always been a bear. Lately other publications, such as the Globe & Mail, have started to deteriorate alarmingly. It ruins the entire online model to make reading an unpleasant experience. This also applies to those ads that pop up, obscuring the article.

Finally, online publications are much more about the writers than print. I hardly ever click my bookmark to the Toronto Star home page, but I regularly click on my links to the Star's columnists, especially Chantal Hebert. If you want hits on your site, you hire great writers and you promote them.

I get the impression that print media think of their online component as an sideline to their main thing. They need to change that thinking. Their online product has to compete head-on with other online products. There is lots of competition, and they will simply lose us if they put content behind a subscription wall or provide an unsatisfying reading experience. To succeed, they need to play to their strengths: for example, the Waterloo Regional Record has great local coverage. I don't read it for the reprints of international or even national articles. Why then is the Local section not on a tab at the top, and only accessible from the home page? I open the Record every day and the only sections I look at are Local and Opinions. If they had local ads, I'd look at those too.


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