Print v Pixels: A “New” Old Idea for Newspapers

That gnashing of teeth you hear in the general vicinity of East Colfax and Broadway is undoubtedly a reaction to another dissection of the tenuous futures of the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News as they compete for readers and advertisers with online media outlets.

As someone who lives in both worlds, I don’t see it as a zero sum game between print and pixels. And I’d like to suggest a “new” old idea to shape smart commentary and in-depth analysis as a companion to online breaking news. Let’s take a step back for a moment and review the current situation.

Westword’s Michael Roberts penned his latest column on the recent round of proposed staffing cuts with some interesting comments by Dean Singleton, head honcho of NewsMedia Group, the Post’s parent company:

The topic of whether one of Denver’s two dailies will have to die for the other to survive is ticklish, and Singleton addresses it cautiously. “There aren’t many cities with two newspapers competing editorially,” he allows. “Denver is fortunate, and I hope we have two for a long, long time. But there’s never been a guarantee that there will always be two newspapers in Denver. There’ll be two as long as the business model justifies two.”

Although ending the publication of one daily would seem to violate the JOA, he says, “It depends on what you call two newspapers. Newspapers aren’t just print on paper anymore, and online is a major component.”

This comment suggests that, in Singleton’s opinion, one print product supported by two independent websites might pass muster with any court considering JOA-related matters — but he argues otherwise. “That’s not what I said,” he insists. “All I said is that the definition of a newspaper today is more than print on paper.”

But there’s more to it than that, in my not so humble opinion. It’s not only delivering what the readers want but when they want it and in what format they want it.

According to a PowerPoint presentation [PDF] by the Post’s advertising department earlier this year:

  • Denver ranks second in the nation for Internet use — 74 percent of Metro Denver adults have gone online in the past month
  • DNA websites rank FIRST in Denver with 31.4M page views and 4.3M unique visitors each month

Powerful statistics, no doubt, but without more information it’s hard to extrapolate that those wired-in adults are actually going to news sites rather than music download sites, social networking pages, and blogs about aardvarks to Zoastranism.

Also, it’s just as likely that the online readers are simply ducking in and out to check the latest sports’ scores, ski conditions, and weather forecasts rather than to read hard news.

While the trend to get news online is certainly growing, the printed broadsheet remains the favored method for a good proportion of readers. So during this inevitable transition, how can newspapers compete?

I’ve mentioned in previous editorials, such as Muckraking for the Common Good, that making content more relevant to readers through old-school investigative reporting would be one place to distinguish print versus online news.

Another thought has been resonating with me since the ombudsman discussion presented by the local Society for Professional Journalists chapter last week. It was a toss-off comment in the midst of several spirited exchanges about perceptions of ideological bias and the citizen journalism fad — resurrecting the evening newspaper edition.

Why couldn’t the joint operating agreement under which the Post and Rocky currently labor, include a shift to morning and late afternoon production schedules thus enabling each paper to capture the most current news and provide added context to breaking stories from their respective online sites within the same news day?

Tim McNulty, the ombudsman for the Chicago Tribune wrote about the concept in his latest column with some fascinating food for thought:

This week’s report on the decline in U.S. newspaper circulation — the fifth consecutive showing of significant decreases — illustrates why editors and publishers are rethinking ways of delivering the news. They are keenly aware that there is no longer a single solution to serving readers.

There have been other transformations. The majority of American newspapers were once published in the afternoon, but in the 1950s as television news programs appeared, people changed their reading habits and began tuning in to hear the news at dinnertime.

Over the next four decades, the trend accelerated as cities spread out, traffic congestion increased and distribution problems became even greater. The number of afternoon papers dropped to 645 from 1,459.

The number of morning edition newspapers climbed during that same period, to 817 from 312. Americans increasingly choose to drink their coffee and eat breakfast reading the fresh news of the day (well, actually yesterday). In the early 1980s, cable news was a revolution and soon after came the early commercial days of the Internet.

No one is certain how newspapers will look in the next five or 10 years, but the hunger for credible information is as great as ever. The difference now is that the news is no longer “hot off the press.” It is everywhere.

What say you? Would you read an afternoon newspaper? And what would you want in terms of content?

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