Newspapers are changing. They must, to survive. But are they changing fast enough?
Newsrooms are a fantastic environment to be a part of. Noisy, busy, opinionated, but in my experience, never particularly hi-tech.
A newsroom of the mid-1990s more often than not relied on old-fashioned electronic typewriters while home computers were already the norm out of the workplace. This was all that was needed pre-internet – it’s often said a reporter needs a pen, a pad, and a phone, and in some ways this is still true to this day, particularly if that phone is an iPhone or Blackberry, for instance.
Fast forward to 2001 and many of the large regional newspapers had one computer earmarked for internet access, usually with a clunky dial up connection. Most research was done the ‘old fashioned’ way, by asking a colleague or researching a topic in a book, hitting the phones or heading to the town hall to check the electoral role.
Digital editors on regional newspapers tended to be stuck away in a corner with little communication between them and the rest of the newsroom. Now, this is hard to believe and digital editors often play a larger part in the newsgathering process than their traditional counterparts.
Newspapers began spending millions on technology in a bid to catch up. In 2006 the Lancashire Evening Post announced it was to become the very first newspaper in the UK to begin a digital switchover, with reporters working for print and online in a way that is considered the norm just four years later.
The Times made headlines in its own right more recently when it announced its content was to go behind a paywall. Needless to say the newspaper industry and anyone else with a vested interest in its future is watching very closely and dusting off their own plans.
However, did newspapers miss a trick? Take a look at this revealing piece by the BBC’s Sean Coughlan, who notes the Times Educational Supplement introduced paid for content in 1997 but pulled the plug when it was decided free content was the way forward. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8720282.stm
So are newspapers, which so often have seemed one step behind what readers are expecting, still missing a trick now? The latest revolution in newspapers has been in the way they engage with readers. It is not enough to simply report stories as if they were to be printed, folded up and taken on a train on the morning commute.
In this, most newspapers are succeeding on a very basic level. A quick scan of some of the national newspaper sites reveals a common fault: the Guardian’s news Twitter feed has more than 67,000 followers, but the newspaper is only following 964 people in return. Going back a couple of days I could only find three instances where whoever is administering the account had re-tweeted anything, and all these were re-tweets of stories on other Guardian Twitter accounts.
The FT has more than 100,000 followers, but is following just 42 people.
Engagement is key, and it looks like, again, newspapers could be missing a trick. Readers want personalised content delivered direct to them via the medium of their choice – Twitter, the iPad, mobile phones. This is a prospect undreamt of just a few years ago – the chance to engage directly with readers in a manner of their choosing. What an opportunity!
With technology and social media changing so fast, there is a real danger of newspapers falling behind again and I for one am far too fond of the industry in all its old-fashioned, often controversial glory to see it fail.