Thursday, May 8, 2008

Newspapers - adapt or die?

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

Every medium that’s ever been invented is always expected to replace those media that went before. So TV was expected to kill cinema, radio to kill newspapers, newspapers to kill town criers (probably).

And for no medium has this been more true than for the internet, which has been touted as the killer of pretty much anything you can think of.

The reality though is more nuanced, and provides at least as much opportunity as it does threat.

In this context, Charles Darwin had it right:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

Newspapers adapted to the popularity of television news by changing their approach – either focusing on gossip and features, or bringing depth and consideration to stories that TV couldn’t give time to.

And the success of cinema chains like Vue is testament to how investing in the value proposition can bring audiences flocking to a medium that if we believed pundits in the ‘50s and ‘60s, would be dead by now.

But for the Capital Times newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, last week was a landmark in their history as the company closed its afternoon-published newspaper, becoming an exclusively online proposition.

"Today marks our last edition as a traditional daily newspaper of the sort Americans knew in the 19th and 20th centuries," an editorial read. "Starting tomorrow, The Capital Times will be a daily newspaper of the sort Americans will know in the 21st century.”

So are they right? Is the future exclusively online, or is it likely to remain a mixed economy?

Of course, there is no ‘right’ answer. Whilst it is still economic to distribute newspapers in physical format and consumers demand them, there will still be a business – but this is obvious.

It seems likely that at some stage in the future, demand may shift to the consumption of media on portable devices. Units with roll-out colour screens that allow a highly portable but easily viewable experience are already in prototype, and with the ongoing desire of mobile networks to find a use for 3G we might not have long to wait.

Newspapers as diverse as the Sun and the Guardian have recognised this – building audiences to their online product. Their objective is to move the brand from being a ‘newspaper’ to a ‘media’ play – with the newspaper, website and mobile services being the outward manifestations of this brand.

This is smart, because it develops secondary revenue, constructs a successor to the primary vehicle should that market start to fall, and widens consumers’ expectations of the brand.

It isn’t just newspapers that face this challenge though – TV companies too are investing in their web presence with a view to achieving the same goal. Channel 4 are now regularly commissioning multimedia projects – the Big Art Mob, a four-part TV series comes with a community website and a mobile site that let users upload images of civic art, whilst the recent Embarrassing Bodies series is accompanied by a website and online games. All this content is merged in around their 4OD online video site, where you can catch up on shows you missed.

But the Capital Times isn’t completely abandoning its print past. It is hedging its bets, continuing every week to publish free an entertainment guide and a news digest.

Because in the past when newspapers and TV stations lost audience, they closed for ever. Now though, a future exists for these brands on the web and in mobile, and for stronger brands in building further value in their relationships with audiences – through enriching their output with content in these other channels.

So far from killing other media, the internet is creating new opportunities for them to evolve – and it’s their adaptability to change that will determine their success in meeting this challenge.