Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Losing readers to the Net

Two recent articles have raised the old spectre of the internet taking readers away from printed newspapers.

One concerns a recent survey which found that Europeans were spending nearly twice as much time online (20% of media consumption) as they did reading newspapers (11%). Of course, this was conducted by the European Interactive Advertising Association, so they do have a vested interest, and while most people went online to check email (88%), only 61% used the web for news.

Meanwhile, the eminent Roy Greenslade twins the decline in newspaper readership with the increase in newspaper website use, and envisages "a potentially disastrous situation for printed newspapers in which their sales have fallen to levels that are hard to sustain, yet their website offshoots will be hugely popular. [...] Just as worrying", he notes, "is the fact that many people get their news from net sources unconnected to newspapers, especially the BBC. There are hosts of sites offering news of varying quality and integrity, including those famous solo journalists known as bloggers."

Roy quotes Pete Picton, the Sun's online editor, as believing that the balance between what appears in print and online requires investigation. "The question of cannibalisation", Picton told last month's Association of Online Publishers' annual conference, "is worthy of a whole separate debate in our industry."

This is certainly an issue. I buy a paper perhaps a couple times a week these days, but most of my news consumption comes from electronic sources: my two homepages are the Guardian NewsBlog and the website of the journalist George Monbiot; I receive email briefings from the Guardian, NewsIsFree.com and the Online Publishers Association to name a few; and I've installed RSS reader on my computer, which duly chimes in twice a day with headlines from the areas that interest me.

We're getting closer to that Daily Me that Nicholas Negroponte talked about almost ten years ago, but rather than being supplied by media organisations it's being crafted by ourselves out of available sources. The important factor here is what those sources are. RSS Reader, for instance, leans heavily on American feeds, and when writing a blog it's easy to fall into the trap of "If it ain't online, it doesn't exist" - because you can't link to it.

This is perhaps the more immediately important debate. The low resolution of computer screens and the portability of newspapers will ensure they remain popular for a time yet. It may also be that online sources are offering something that newspapers are not. Newspapers face a journalistic and technical challenge; readers and bloggers face one of trust and reliability.


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