Physical newspapers aren’t dying off – they’re evolving

Column: I may not subscribe for home delivery, but I read the news more than ever.

By , Columnist for The Christian Science Monitor

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    Customers purchase some newspapers at Out of Town News in Harvard Square.
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I did something last month that I have not done in, oh, four or five years. I got a subscription to a print newspaper.

Not for me, but for my son. His civics and science classes require that he bring in one or two news stories a week for discussion purposes. So my wife and I thought that we’d get him a subscription to the local paper, so he could cut the stories out.

I’m not sure what we were thinking.

Recommended: Innovation

He doesn’t use it, of course (except for the comics). Instead, he goes online, reads the news at media websites or news aggregation sites such as digg.com, and then downloads stories, pictures, and video for his reports.

Yes, that’s right: video. He has a thumb drive that he pops into the computer, downloads the news clip that he wants to use, and plays it for his teacher in class. Just last night, he found a story at npr.com about the Large Hadron Collider in Europe that included a video of the “LHC Rap,” written by one of the scientists. It’s the best explanation of the darn thing I’ve ever seen. Today, he’s going to share that with the class.

Something is happening to the news
The number of people in the United States who now have broadband access either at work or at home has not just reached a tipping point, but crossed over it. (More than 55 percent of Americans have high-speed access at home, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.)

Combine that enhanced access with social-networking tools and the adoption of new reporting formats and you get news websites that are a far cry from ones created only a few years ago. Journalists are turning to Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, and other social-networking sites as a way to gather and share information. In addition, they are presenting stories in different forms – blogs, dazzling interactive Web pages, tapping into databases to create graphics that update in real time, etc.

These trends in news gathering and delivery were obvious during the recent Online News Association conference in Washington. (Disclosure: I helped arrange the conference, but I had nothing to do with the selection of content or speakers.) Two things really struck me about the three-day event:

1) Audience expectations for news websites are changing and they want more reporting that fits high-bandwidth connections.

2) There are even more new tools that journalists can use to tell stories either by themselves or with the help of their readers.

Leave it to Robert Scoble of FastCompany.tv to provide an example that goes to the heart of the matter. During his keynote address at the conference, Mr. Scoble was also broadcasting it via his cellphone to his Internet followers. Later, he took questions from them and the audience at the same time.

Scoble argued that all this connectivity changes journalism by opening it up. If a reporter conducts an interview with a newsmaker during a live broadcast, “people can send questions as the interview takes place.”

This takes advantage of members of the audience that have a deeper understanding of certain issues. (You might call it “open source journalism.”) So a journalist can use these new platforms to use “the crowd smarts” to ask more pointed questions.

News, in 140 characters or less
Scoble also talked about using the microblogging service Twitter as a way to report the news. He discussed his own involvement as one of the first people to report on the recent devastating earthquake in China – even though he was in the US at the time.

He found out about the news by checking the minute-by-minute Twitter updates from people in that region. Scoble blogged about his observation and wound up scooping many major media outlets.

By the way, if you think Twitter is just an annoying fad, you’re wrong.

As consultant Amy Webb pointed out during her seminar on new tech trends, its use has increased by 485 percent over the past seven months.

Over the past month, several well-known political bloggers, including Marc Ambinder of theatlantic.com, used Twitter to report from the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

News is also going more mobile. E-mail versions of news websites have been available for several years, but now more and more of these sites are also offering video for mobile devices. (The introduction of some major new smartphones, such as the iPhone, has spurred growth in this area.)

Does all this technology mean newspapers are finished? No.

We’ve been hearing that for a while, but it seems investment banks are disappearing faster these days than newspapers. They are, however, in trouble and no doubt will change their modus operandi. One more popular scenario discussed at the conference is that papers will become the complement to websites, rather than the other way around.

Then again, I’m probably going to cancel my recent paper subscription.

No one seems to read it much, I’m afraid. Editions pile up in the corner until, once a week, I taking them to the neighborhood recycling center. And as I’m walking over there, I’m frequently checking the news on my cellphone for stories that I can recommend to my son.

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