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“Digital first” isn’t as hard as it looks

July 12, 2011

Last month, Guardian News & Media (GNM), which prints the UK’s Observer and The Guardian, announced that it would be a “digital first” news organization. Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of GNM, said that the paper would be focusing more on its digital efforts in an attempt to turn back the tide of falling revenue. The only problem with that mindset is that there still isn’t a half-decent monetary model for digital journalism, outside of a full subscription, which serves more to protect the print product than to stand on its own.

Journalism has undergone a crisis of conscience over the last 10 years. In the beginning, the profession was the staunch Catholic who won’t renounce his beliefs no matter how many times someone tells them water can’t possibly be turned into wine and that newspapers wouldn’t survive in the Internet era. Then, around five years ago, after severe cuts in newsrooms across the nation, the profession panicked and quickly began to believe that the Internet was the future, so it began to devote more of its resources online, too often for free. Now, journalism is in the tail-end of that converted stage, as GNM’s announcement shows. Editors everywhere are still firmly of the belief that online is the way to go, but they haven’t yet figured out a realistic model for it.

The reality is this: In the modern era, people will see news online first. There’s just no way around that whatsoever, and GNM appears to realize that. Instead of a paper packed with briefs and hyperlocal content that 1/16th of the audience actually cares about, the daily should be a product that attempts to create some sense of meaning out of the news instead of simply throwing it out there.

A paper should, in other words, be more reminiscent of a daily news magazine than the product its audience can find quite literally 1,000 different places online. Its content should be as unique to that given paper as possible in order to amplify a reader’s reason for picking up the local paper as opposed to, say, The New York Times.

The section of most newspapers that seems to understand this the best is sports. Sportswriters were the first to realize that blogging is not an option and that it’s simply a part of the job. The nature of game stories also forced them to post everything to the Internet before the morning edition. More than any other section of the paper, sportswriters seem willing to find a new way to write about their subjects, a new angle to take, a mentality that is probably shaped by the obvious cliches that run rampant throughout the genre. For some reason, “hard news” sections at papers that aren’t the Washington Post or the New York Times seem hesitant to adapt that thinking.

The reality, though, is that journalists such as Ezra Klein and Nate Silver are the future of the profession. They blog incessantly, constantly reporting and paying attention to anything that could mean anything. Most importantly, though, they analyze, figuring out the way their story fits into the much larger jigsaw puzzle, something that the next generation of journalists is going to need to be more adept at than ever before.

In order to turn readers back to papers, and, in the process, rescue falling ad revenues, newspapers need to make their websites the must-go destinations for breaking local news. The ideal setup would be one in which consumers are willing to pay for a package combining digital access (including tablets) and the print product, as monetizing tablet advertising should be the next major step in profits. If papers can push consumers to subscribe to multiple forms of their product that serve different purposes at different points in the day — the site for breaking news throughout the day, the tablet for the afternoon commute, the tablet/site at some point in the evening and the print product for the morning commute and to be consumed in pieces throughout the day.

Only by realizing that the print product is what props the digital product up and by realizing the advantages and weaknesses — business and editorial — of both will newspapers be able to make the most out of their assets.

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