Despite tales of doom and gloom, I think there’s a real future for big-name publications. With millions of loyal readers who rely on them for opinion pieces which could not be replicated by bloggers or other types of citizen journalism – the results of the type of reporting which requires sources, quality-checks, perseverance and a lot of time – they will remain in business. However, I do suspect that most smaller publications – regional papers and the like – will cease to exist.
In addition, I think big name publications will look very different. For starters, they’ll only publish online. Secondly, I think they’ll come to resemble online communities/social networks, which will be reflected in 1) the nature of content; and 2) the prevalent business model.
Papers as social networks
This isn’t as odd as it might appear at first. First, big-name newspapers already have ready-made communities which most aren’t at all leveraging, namely their loyal readership or subscribers: people who invest in their paper of choice, proudly acknowledge that they read it, and buy into where it stands on the left-right divide. Being a Guardian, Le Figaro or La Repubblica reader means something, and that’s a fantastic asset for any organisation to have.
So then what: how does that community become an online community/social network? Practically speaking, by engaging readers in a number of ways, from allowing them to comment, interact with each other and people at the paper more easily, and to have a more direct say in selecting content. This will require that each user is given a profile option that is less basic than that provided by most papers today: each user’s profile can show, say to start with, a few personal details and all interaction with the paper so far (comments, articles.)
The nature of content
It’s not so much that content will change dramatically. After all, newspapers are about providing content, and if the model of content goes, the loyal readership we’re talking about might not remain so loyal. What will change is that content will be determined by the community to a greater extent: in practice, this will mean that aggregation and syndication will play a greater than they do at present. There will be more citizen journalists and bloggers from within the community providing content on their own blogs and sites which will then be aggregated on the site (a little like the Guardian’s commentisfree section, although content there is published directly onto the site.) These writers must of course adhere to the same standards as the journalists employed by the papers. The community should also be given a say in which sections are developed or if certain investigative stories are pursued; and most of all, it should feel that people at the paper are listening to it. Interaction within the community and between the community and the paper (ideally the paper should feel that it is part of the community) should be easy and frequent.
In addition, it should be easier to publish material via syndication on other sites and blogs than it is at present, including anything from widgets in sidebars to Facebook applications showcasing latest updates. This is quite prevalent already, but it should go much further. The vast majority of community members (and beyond) should be showcasing content from the paper on their own blogs, sites, and other social network profiles.
The different business model
This is trickier and I’d be rich if I had a real answer to this, but I think the recipe for success still lies in advertising rather than subscriptions or the like. But to make it work, newspapers really need a big, lively, bustling community of online readers (who comment and interact as well) and they need to know a fair bit about each profile. Without this, they could not develop a viable model.
Assuming that they have the community, then what? First, they can develop a classified ads system for people within the actual community. At a low cost, they can post their own ads and target them to relevant people (you’ll have basic details i.e. geographical, age, and interests – based on what they read and comment on.) Second, this same model can be applied to external advertisers looking for highly targeted advertising opportunities. For now, papers will all testify that they don’t make much from selling banner space and that people don’t really click on banners. But if you develop a community and know more about the people in it, it’d be possible to make advertising far more effective.
In truth, these ideas aren’t new by any stretch, and a number of newspapers are doing affiliate marketing, bannering, classifieds already. I stress, the crux really lies in nurturing the community: making it grow and become more dynamic and loyal by engaging with it, providing it with incentives, allowing it to become involved in how the organisation develops, and mobilising it so it helps to spread content. In this way, the community will grow, engage and spread the paper’s mantra even further, help the paper develop so as to best fit the needs of its readers, which in itself makes it a better proposition for advertisers. And it must be said.. a more active community will mean learning more about its members, ensuring that they only receive promotional messages they’re really interested in – an even better proposition for advertisers.