Newspapers have a future

We are in the middle of an information revolution and one of the great ironies of our age is that newspapers are in danger of extinction – because they are seen as extraneous to our wired world – at precisely the moment that they are more necessary than ever. The very overabundance of other information media, the spread of the Internet and digital communities, and the economic crisis make it imperative to have serious investigation and analysis of a world with no certainties. Until now, only newspapers (with educated and experienced journalists) have appeared capable of providing such a service. Newspaper people – with a combination of narcissism, fatalism and rubber-necking – each day record the minutiae of their profession’s woes. Reading newspapers, one would believe that their demise is a matter of just a few years if not months. Indeed, the chronicles of newspaper deaths are impressive. Great newspapers in the United States have closed or are in danger of closing. Just last Friday we read that Britain’s Independent and Independent on Sunday are headed toward sale or slaughter because of debts that exceed 1 billion euros (so, of course, no one will want to buy them). The great New York Times and Washington Post are firing people and trying to cut costs in whichever way they can. In this climate of uncertainty, the 10th annual European Newspaper Congress in Vienna last week provided an opportunity to discuss the challenges that newspapers face and proposals for their future. We went expecting obituaries and lame jokes about rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. Instead, for two days, press people from many countries discussed their problems with great seriousness but also with optimism, exchanging ideas as to how newspapers can make the great leap forward. Whether world-famous gurus of design, such as Mario Garcia and Juan Antonio Giner, media analysts or editors of newspapers large and small (for sale and free), everyone was part of a single world with common problems: Newspapers are precious but expensive products that will have to embrace the possibilities provided by new technologies and not sink under the weight of inertia or the waves caused by the competition. One conclusion that everyone appeared to share was that design and reorganization of content can renew an existing newspaper and attract readers who have grown up using the Internet, mobile phones, Twitter, and so on. As Garcia noted, «in 2012, people who have no recollection of life before Google or the Internet will turn 21.» For Garcia, the newspaper is now one with its online edition, mobile services, messages etc. «You are news people, not newspaper people,» he told the audience in Vienna City Hall’s grand ballroom. He explained that journalists have to review their content according to the medium that they will use to get it to the public, as what works in print may not work online, and vice versa. «Invest in the Internet,» he advised. «And nurture your weekend print editions.» In this new world, journalists work for their newspaper’s print and online editions and they adapt their work according to the medium. Design plays a great role in attracting readers – people who will pay for something that they can ostensibly get for free on the Internet or in free papers. But, as all speakers noted or took for granted, the greatest weapon that newspapers have is serious journalism – not with news that will already be known via electronic media, but through the analyses, investigations and commentary which will give a particular newspaper’s readers an advantage. The crisis will pass. The need for good information is permanent. The challenge for newspapers is not to be first with the news but to be the best at what they do with it in terms of analysis and getting the big story right. The best newspapers will survive.