Some sobering reading for the news business

The business of news was generally predictable and could generate large fortunes for centuries after the printing press was perfected. But the last few decades have not been as easy. A series of technological developments have had major impacts on the news business. The Internet, the latest of the series, threatens to do a better job at disruption than any of the previous ones.

There was only one type of news business that provided information to normal citizens from the late 1400s until well into the 20th century and that was the printed page. Apart from an occasional town crier, books, pamphlets, broadsides and newspapers were where one went for news. Radio did not seem to have that big an impact on the news business — you got news quickly through radio but had to go to a newspaper for the details. The first big technology hit came in the 1960s when broadcast TV started nightly news broadcasts. This basically wiped out the afternoon newspapers.

Now, more and more people are getting their news via the Internet. The impact of this fact has been made clearer by a new report on “Creative Destruction: An Exploratory Look at News on the Internet” from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard JFK School of Government. If you are in the newspaper business this report will be sobering reading.

The report basically says that Web sites with high brand recognition (like The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC) are doing well and getting better. It also notes some specialty sites like are growing rapidly. But, life is harder and will get still harder for less well known sites.

The report does not explore many reasons for the lacklustre attraction of many news sites but it seems to me that many of these sites can blame themselves for at least some of their problems. While many newspapers were early to the news-on-Web sites game, many do a very poor job of making the user want to visit the site. The Boston Globe Web site illustrates one type of problem. This site is a static representation of today’s paper. If you want to know what is happening now you are directed to a different site. The New York Times understands that a news site needs to be updated during the day since news happens all the time. Other news organizations seem not to want to attract readers. They hide behind requirements for readers to register or try to block news aggregators.

As for myself, I keep the top part of the CNN Web site on my second screen most of the time. I like to be able to glance over to see what’s going on and like the highlighted news flashes. When I want to actually take the time to catch up I go first to The New York Times then to Google News. I do not use either of them like I do the CNN site because they do not have a compact summary of top stories that can be on the screen at all times.

The report makes an attempt to peer into the future of the news business and makes many good points, but I find it hard to imagine a future that is not mostly driven by a few national brand names (I guess that a place at that table is what Rupert Murdoch thinks he is buying with his US$5.6B bid for The Wall Street Journal), by a few big news aggregators, and a gaggle of small local or specialty news sites. The first will hurt the diversity of news but the second may help overcome that.

Disclaimer: Some prognosticators have worried that higher education will also become a battle of brand names. But Harvard, with a rather good brand, has not expressed an opinion on that or this topic.

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