It’s no secret that the way people consume news is rapidly shifting from print to digital. The rise of digital is imminent; indeed, it has already risen. The problem is the rulebook for newspaper digitization is still being written. The most important function of newspapers, traditionally, is that they provide the public a forum.
Historically, newspapers were channels for discussion among the community. According to Lenatti (2009), People want to talk about news more than they want to read about it. Newspapers rely on the idea of building a subscriber base and then selling that subscriber base to advertisers, but that concept doesn’t really fit the Generation X and Millennial audiences that make up the vast majority of digital subscribers in the digital age. While free print publications have value to advertisers, free digital news is of much less value.
Relying solely on producing more content as a means to engage an audience is a bad idea, but it was the first thing newspapers started to do in the digital age, according to Lenatti. The real idea of journalism is that it provides a forum for the public. Quoting Arthur Miller, “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.”
Since the days of Benjamin Franklin, the newspaper’s investment in providing a user forum has been whittled down to letters-to-the-editor pages in newspapers. These pages are often heavily edited, and Lenatti says they don’t actually get to the heart of how the user wants to engage. Speaking of engagement, Lenatti also suggests the journalists at the digital publishing companies themselves should become engaged with their audience. Answer questions, respond to or provide criticism, when needed.
Also, in addition to maintaining a digital edition, the publication would do well to have their presence known and sent through multiple social media platforms. The technical side should be close to the newsroom side, i.e. the webmasters and software people need to be in on the story, so they can help tell it in the 21st century digital language.
Submitters are happy to see their content highlighted, and this encourages the audience to engage more. User-generated content should also be called out by digital publishing companies. Plus, being this type of forum opens the possibility to someone submitting content that goes viral. Brands don’t exist like they once did in media, thanks to the rise of viral media, according to Funabiki (2011). Popularity isn’t long-term; it’s fleeting. The key is to be as wildly popular for a short period of time as possible, and then to figure out how to do that repeatedly.
One thing consumers want in the digital age is the ability to comment on content. However, comment boxes can’t just be open-ended text fields in which people can spew hateful rhetoric. There has to be a line of defense against the trolls of the Internet. This is part of the reason it’s important to get the journalist involved, but anonymity is still a major hurdle to civil online discourse. Digital publishing companies should require identity validation on their comments. There are a number of easy-to-use services to connect users and their Facebook accounts, Google+ accounts, etc. Not only will people be more inclined to behave if they believe their friends are watching, but Lenatti points out that the credibility of the comments section improves overall.
Big organizations like the New York Times need to realize that they are competing with “good-enough” news services now, and while sticking to the editorial methods of the past should be supported, competitors embrace an ideology more akin to “fail often, fail quickly.” This is not to suggest the New York Times starts operating more like Buzzfeed, but it highlights the need for innovation and evolution of the newspaper through digitization.
Mutter (2013) says publishers need to look at their real audience, not their ideal audience. Print advertising and subscriptions are the source for up to 90 percent of the revenue at an average newspaper. Problematic when considering three-quarters of the people who still rely on print editions of newspapers are over 45 years old. Only 29 percent of the U.S. population as it is reads the newspaper according to a Pew Research poll. This compared to 56 percent in 1991. The Millennial and Generation X demographic grew up in an age where everything was presented to them on a screen one way or another. These generations also create their own web news, through the use of Twitter, Facebook, and myriad other online social media outlets.
According to Kates (2013), No one passively consumes news anymore. Everybody goes out and looks for the current events, in real time, as they happen. The daily news cycle is a 20th century throwback. The success of newspapers is dependent on content, but not the same old newspaper content. Digital newspapers are not simply conversions of their print counterparts.
Over 63 million people subscribed to newspapers in 1994. The best year for that ever, but also regarded as the year before the Internet started taking over our lives. In 2011 that figure had fallen by 30 percent to 44 million. People like the convenience of modern-day digital media, because they can tailor it to their interests and needs. Trends in demographics suggest that the hardcore print-edition newspaper reader is walking headlong into the great beyond, and will be there soon. Two-thirds of Americans use multiple media outlets to get their news. Newspapers should leverage their content-creation powers as well as their vast archives, and put those to use on a new digital platform that is well thought out, and bears the responsibility of everyone, from the technical minds who built the platform, to the journalists and editors creating the content. Everybody has a hand in the new direction of media.
The digital newspaper is and should be considered a separate product being put forth by a publisher, according to Yang (2012). To do this, publishers need to select the right digital publishing platform. Olive Software, as an example, enables publishers to put their product on all devices and platforms including iOS, Android and Kindle, and also creates a digitized version of the print edition, only with some digital accoutrement that makes it a separate product. Digital editions need more content, like hyperlinks, videos, audio, and update stories frequently, since that is practical digitally opposed to in print, and what users want. Readers want both print and digital formats. Both of them. One isn’t a throwaway. With HTML5, apps are even unnecessary to go digital. HTML5 will help push content in new and exciting ways across a variety of devices.