The Future of Newspapers

(This article recaps and expands on my discussion on Newstalk’s The Right Hook)

Newspapers around the world are shrinking. In fact, with a few niche exceptions like the Economist, all print media are having troubles.

The culprit, as usual, is the internet. With so much information, from all around the world, available for free how are newspapers supposed to compete?

Well, now there’s a new service that might have the answer. Like most good ideas, its very simple (though like most early internet ideas, it isn’t yet that simple to use). Its called FeedJournal and it aims to automatically produce a newspaper made up of only the things you’re interested in. In other words, it’s giving the reader what they want.

I’ve been playing with FeedJournal and have spoken to its inventor about some of the things he has planned for it in the coming months. From what I’ve seen so far, it already has the potential to be the start of something big.

How does it work?

You tell it what you like to read- and feed it links to those sites. Then it combines them all together and automatically lays them out in the familiar newspaper format as a pdf so you can print a tailor made newspaper out and take it with you.

What’s coming up?

Feedjournal will shortly include links to photographs and has the capacity to take the stories that newspapers and magazines make available to their subscribers and combine the ones that interest you. So you could have the Sport section from the Irish Independent, the International news from the Daily Telegraph and so on. Perhaps just as atttractive, you can leave out the parts of the paper that don’t interest you. Better for the environment!

This kind of thing creates opportunities for micro publishing in niches. You could write articles on something you were an expert on, and without having any expensive publishing skills or tools, have them turned into newsletters that you could charge for. People might subscribe for a printable report on a minority sport (basketball in Ireland, say) which doesn’t get much coverage, or for a speciality reports (legal reports, share tipping etc) that might be worth a lot to a small audience.

Currently, the feedjournal service is aimed at publishers, and has some way to go in making itself accessible to a non-technical user. However, I’m assured that will all change in the coming months when the Reader’s service launches, aimed at the general user.

On air yesterday Karlin worried that a Daily Me, as she said Bill Gates had described this kind of service, would lose the serendipity of a traditional newspaper. I’ve two responses to that, on reflection. The first is to agree that the editorial function is a valuable one but that it needn’t always come from the traditional centralised source. We are getting used to trusting our friends’ recommendations of things we might be interested in. Certainly they know me better than a person I’ve never met in Abbey St. or Tara street. A Daily Us is a much more attractive proposition than a Daily Me.

My second response is to say that resisting people’s urge to personalise their media and news, on the grounds that it isn’t something they ought to do ignores the uncomfortable truth that it is something they will do. Whether in the death of the album filler track due to per-track downloading, or the looming end of Telly as a shared experience thanks to Sky+ style boxes, packaging wanted and unwanted stuff together, on the grounds that it’s good for people isn’t going to cut it as a loig term survival plan. The alternative to giving people something they want to read is to be not read at all.

Next-Generation

Much talked about, most recently by the Editor of the Guardian in the UK, is the idea that newspapers are heading for an iPod moment. They’re worried that somebody is going to bring out a kind of a device that will let people download their news onto a kind of e-paper, as in the film Minority Report. If and when that happens, this FeedJournal service or something like it might become the main way that newspapers can survive. While the waters are still calm is the best time for newspapers to prepare for a coming storm.

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