Books written by Ray Sullivan

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Read All About It

The demise of conventional printed newspapers is not in doubt.  This isn't just my opinion, it is mirrored in studies in the US and anecdotally by journalists on both sides of the Atlantic.  The main reasons would appear to be the difficulties in making conventional printed news pay - the empires of the past are proving more difficult to build than ever and most successful newspapers appear to be subsidised by electronic news media.

And lets face it, we live in an instantaneous news world where any event worth talking about breaks across the TV and radio channels immediately while those items that can wait are aired within an hour or two on the many news programmes that are scheduled.  Many of us have news alerts set up on our computers so that items that are likely to interest us are flagged for our attention as soon as the news breaks.

So what is the purpose of newspapers, anyway?  To bring a version of the news is one purpose, but due to the production processes currently used the version we see while eating our cornflakes is necessarily out of date.  And when I say version, I'm referring to the intentional bias every newspaper - and news broadcaster for that matter - inevitably buffs the news up with.  Sometimes the bias is unintentional - when any of us repeat a news event we will impart a little of our own deep rooted beliefs and prejudices on it - and sometimes the bias if blatant.  I'm not going to have a pop at any specific newspaper here - I could, there are a few that make my blood boil by the blatant bias they impart at any opportunity - but I'm going to suggest that all 'proper' newspapers in democratic countries produce reports that are essentially true, but perhaps not containing all the truth.  So when your favourite rag states that such and such a disease has doubled in the last ten years it may be to point a finger at a failing health service, bad government funding decisions or perhaps the allegedly dubious activities of certain groups in society.  What it may not make obvious is sometimes the doubling - from ten occurrences in ten years to twenty, for example - may not be statistically significant. It may not even be a news item when viewed in this light.

All newspapers do this, to some degree.  Politics has a lot to do with it - left, right, centre, whatever - most newspapers align with a political angle along the way.  Of course, that is partly why some of their regular readership buy them, so that isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Unfortunately some readers appear to swallow these biased views wholesale without challenge. Then there are the personal views of the editor - now that can be a random event that drives some newspapers to report very selectively.  Again, narrow views do seem to be favoured by some readers, of every persuasion.

What newspapers should be able to do above the instant news channels is provide depth to stories, to provide background and analysis to events. Apart from really big stories the major TV and radio news programmes have long moved on to the next news items before this analysis can be performed.  So there is a value in these opinionated rags after all, as long as you can detect the local bias and screen it out of your understanding of the story.  Sometimes easier said than done, I'm afraid.

And they provide cartoons, crosswords and Sudoku problems for the readers with time on their hands to solve.  Try getting that out of Sky/Fox/BBC news.

So how are the newspapers rising to the challenge of the electronic age? Well, some have clicked that there is a frisson of interest in tablet computing, and are offering their products electronically for a subscription. As far as I can tell they don't permit ad hoc purchases of individual copies, although they all seem to allow a free trial - usually for a month - to let you decide if it is the way forward for you. Of course you have to provide bank details, in case you decide not to cancel (or forget to cancel) your subscription. The cost of these subscriptions appear to be expensive to me, but I find newspapers expensive anyway. Some are encouraging subscriptions by throwing in a subsidised tablet computer. The tabloids are pitching at the low end and the broadsheets at the aspirational end. It matters not, they are banking on recouping the cost of the tablets fairly quickly through consumer inertia.

What are they missing? Well, many of us have tablets around the house, so view the imposition of a newspaper's choice of device as unwelcome. Those who don't have a tablet may find it a useful introduction but probably will overpay in the long run. It doesn't fit in with how newspapers are read in most households either. My wife and I used to buy the Sunday version of one of the broadsheets. We would split up the various sections that were specific to each other and would share the common sections over the course of a few days. Now if the newspaper was on my tablet then I'd have to pass my computer over to my wife to do the same thing, despite the fact that she has a perfectly good iPad of her own. Then there is the cost. I appreciate that journalists need paying and reportage can be expensive but those costs exist already. Okay, at the moment the newspapers are having to format news twice - once for print, once for electronic download - but hey, it's the newspapers that want us to adopt the e-versions. And anyway, there's minimal distribution and remaindered stock costs involved in the downloadable versions.

Finally there is this insistence that we lock into their newspaper that is a barrier, as mentioned above.

I want to start reading newspapers electronically but I'm held back by the above reasons. If newspapers want my custom then they need to look at the following: reduce subscription costs to make it attractive for me to buy in; allow me to sample occasional copies without obligation so I can decide if their rag is for me; provide a mechanism to allow me to share the newspaper across my household - Netflix manages this, why can't newspapers? - and finally provide a way for articles to be saved in a cloud. It could be a cloud service provided as part of the subscription that allows most users to archive a limited amount of articles for reference as part of the package but expandable at a cost for those who use newspapers for research.

We are marching towards the demise of printed newspapers, that's a given. It's whether there will be an electronic version waiting on the other side of the journey - that remains to be seen.


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