Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Future of the Newspaper

Certainly technology will bring profound changes to newspapers and to the ways in which people experience news and information. But whether newspapers survive in their present physical form or some other, I expect them to evolve in significant ways if current trends continue. Their evolution, I believe, will take inspiration from the media with which they compete.

People often decry the bias of news sources, yet the most biased commentators are often the most popular. What we publicly decry may be exactly what we privately crave. We are naturally predisposed to accept and agree with interpretations of facts that support our preconceptions and, similarly, to distrust and differ with those that conflict with them. A trend in information media, facilitated by a greatly expanding number of media outlets, is toward increasing segmentation along socio-political lines.

It's a disturbing development, rooted in the profit motive that is essential to the current model of commercial information providers. Communication was once called "the glue that holds society together." It has become, instead, an adhesive that more tightly bonds individuals of particular socio-political leanings to one another, rather than a unifier of human society as a whole. Success in mass media once required providers to appeal to a broad audience but now it is possible to thrive in a niche.

I expect that xenophobia will spread from talk radio and cable punditry to newspapers. A 2004 study of young adult readers by Readership Institute found, not surprisingly, that "people want to read about people like themselves in their local daily newspaper," and "There is less interest (in) coverage of groups to which one does not belong." Perhaps newspapers will become more overtly opinionated in their coverage, cater more to the xenophobic tendencies of their readers, and position themselves more as the voices of specific identity groups. Already we are seeing more opinion, gossip, and biased analysis creeping from the op-ed pages into formerly hard news sections; more column inches throughout local papers topped with the photos and by-lines of their own celebrity pundits.

Another trend, although it has always been prevalent, is information as entertainment. By far the most popular newspaper features are the comics and sports pages. In advertising and news content, readers under 35 prefer information about "things to do," such as recreation and local activities, and "ways to get more out of one's life," such as health and fitness features. Reports of events from around the world are instantly available on the Internet, through Twitter, and on radio and television. Newspapers are unable to compete with the immediacy and pungency of these other media, so we can expect their focus to shift away from event reporting in favor of lifestyle features, amusement, and the narcissistic concerns of their audience.

A third trend I will call "informer-as-celebrity." I think that in a strange way Walter Cronkite is to blame – not personally, but because of the value he brought as an individual to the CBS television network. The other networks competed against Cronkite's highly successful "that's the way it is" reporting not by doing a better job of authoritative, credible coverage, but by emphasizing the personalities of their own anchors. They fought substance with style, and it proved to be a successful strategy.

NBC created "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" to succeed its "Camel News Caravan," tellingly replacing the name of the program sponsor with the names of its anchors. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were superb newsmen, but their network traded on their personalities rather than their journalistic acumen. National and local news outlets followed suit and polyester-haired anchormen (and later, women), along with clownish weather and sports reporters filled the airwaves with happy-talk news programs. The spokespersons became the medium and largely the message of broadcast information.

The spawn of the ménage à trois of these trends – socio-political segmentation, information-as-entertainment, and informer-as-celebrity – is hostility-as-entertainment. What appeals to a large audience about cable television's motley crew of bloviators is the anger and rage they express and the gleeful pleasure they take in bitterness, insult, derision, and obstinacy. "Yellow" journalism – sensationalism, scandal-mongering, and unprofessional practices – has a long tradition; it's nothing new, and it's always masqueraded as "real" news. In the past, it has been part of a newspaper's overall brand and only occasionally identified with a specific reporter or columnist. We may well see more – and more outrageous – sensationalism as newspapers experiment with ways to emulate the appeal of their broadcast competitors. And I expect that a breed of bullying celebrity journalist "stars" will become more important to each newspaper's brand.

One can expect other trends as newspapers cater to their perceptions of audience demands.

Young people think newspapers are too big; they prefer concise, bite-size news. According to the 2004 Readership Institute survey, this group tends to agree that: “I wish this newspaper had fewer pages,” “It has too many special sections,” “It tries to cover too much,” “Too many of the articles are too long.” The same organization's study of a broader reader group similarly concludes that people who feel overwhelmed by news, tend to read newspapers less.

Motivated to expand – or maintain – their readership, newspapers seem to believe that their regular, devoted readers can be counted on to continue their newspaper habit, so they are catering more to "lighter readers" – ironically by providing less: fewer pages, shorter articles, and more limited coverage.

Younger readers also say that they highly value "dynamic visual treatment," and newspapers are certainly trying to cater to this with their colorful eye-candy designs – just as cable news relies heavily on high-tech graphics and the endless repetition of dramatic imagery.

Whatever physical form the newspaper takes in the future, we can expect news delivery media to: target segmented audiences; appeal to narcissism, xenophobia, and the thrill of sensationalism; rely on celebrity pundits; deliver less news more concisely; and do it all with dazzling graphics.

Sorry, news fans, but "that's the way it is."