A future filled with vanishing ink

With 50 million Americans going online for news each day, the Web has the edge.

This past Sunday, I ended a very interesting job. For the past two years, I had been the part-time executive director of the Online News Association (ONA). The job was mostly administrative, but I worked with some of the brightest people in the online news industry. They worked for well-known national and regional newspapers as well as electronic media outlets. Some members were nontraditional media types - bloggers and citizen journalists.

But all these folks have one thing in common: They are enthusiastic about the future of online news gathering and dissemination. As I listened to them talk about online news and the evolving role of traditional media outlets, I pieced together a scenario about what the future of news media might look like.

As I see it, the key is how people will choose to "experience" their news. The media they turn to will be determined by the news experience they want or enjoy the most. In our increasingly fast-paced world, what you do or how you live at any moment plays a huge role in determining your news choices. That's why news organizations are thinking so much about convergence - basically, the ability to give you the news through a variety of media, both traditional and digital.

But first, what about newspapers?

To borrow from Mark Twain, the report of their death is an exaggeration. Newspapers aren't going to die. But in a few years, they will no longer hold the prominent place they currently do in the media cosmos - at least not the print-and-ink editions. Their online versions, however, will be doing quite well.

I confess I don't read print editions of newspapers during the workweek anymore. As the father of four children - someone who writes from home in between doing laundry and other tasks - sitting down to read a newspaper is not on my agenda. I don't have time. Instead, I depend on the radio and the Internet for my news.

A few months ago, I realized that my unread newspapers had become a boon to the recycling industry. So I called to cancel them. When I explained why, the woman on the phone didn't sound surprised. "I hear it all the time," she said.

But Sunday mornings are different. I walk to the corner shop, buy a Sunday edition of The Boston Globe and The New York Times, take them home, and leisurely read as much as I can. That doesn't mean I don't check last night's baseball scores on ESPN.com. But on Sundays, I'm in the mood (and have time) to read a print product. I want to read longer, thoughtful pieces. I want the experience that comes with a cup of coffee and sunlight streaming through the window. This is what I mean when I say that a particular experience will dictate one's media choices.

During the week, I want my news right away. I find that experience mostly by going online. I'm not alone. On a typical day, 50 million Americans go online for news, according to a March report by the Pew Internet and American Life project. It also found that the Web is the primary news source for many people with broadband connections.

Let me give you a recent example of why I believe digital news is the news of the future. I still have a copy of The New York Times from Thursday, July 7, 2005. The front page showed Londoners celebrating the news that they had been awarded the 2012 summer Olympic Games. But this was old news by the time it hit the streets. On that morning, four young men staged a series of terrorist attacks in London that killed more than 50 people. I spent the entire day online reading news reports, looking at photos that passengers on underground cars had sent via cellphone cameras, glancing at blog postings from survivors, and posting comments myself. That day, because of the Internet, I felt intensely connected to the event.

That was the day when I knew that the reign of print was over.

What about radio and TV? I like them, too. But again, those choices are dictated by what I want. Driving in the car or working in the yard, I reach for the radio. At the end of the day, when passive entertainment is all I want, I watch TV.

But while the reign of print as the most important news source may soon end, the role that newspapers play will continue to be important, albeit in an increasingly digital form. My stint at the ONA taught me that people trust newspapers and that the first place people tend to look online for news is their newspaper's online edition. As people move to the Web, so are advertisers. Just last week, the Interactive Advertising Bureau released its 2005 report, which showed that online advertising grew by more than 30 percent over 2004.

I like news on the Web for another reason. In today's environment of huge media conglomerates, the Internet is, for now, the one place you can find a true diversity of news voices. A place where mainstream media is not the only choice for news and opinions.

The bottom line is that news organizations will continue to bring you the news in a variety of ways. Depending on the experience you're looking for, the choice is up to you.

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