Newspapers: Innovate or die!

The good news for big print media is that demand for quality journalism has never been so high. Yet they need to move with the new technology to continue doing what they do best, writes Knut Olav Åmås, culture editor of the Norwegian daily ‘Aftenposten’.

Seen from Scandinavia, the traditional media are by no means on the verge of extinction. At any rate, their future is rather brighter than the gloomier analysts, not to mention the many media pessimists, would have us believe. I think we need some alternative perspectives.

I’ve been asked to speak from the viewpoint of an editor at a big newspaper that used to appear only in print but that now faces quite another reality. True enough, newspapers in several countries have major problems. For sure, circulations might fall yet further, even in those countries in the world that read newspapers most, such as Norway. Costs still need to be reduced and the speed of innovation has to increase.

Innovation is the key word behind my relative optimism. It all depends on the ability to transform. The best media organizations have this ability, along with the will to realize it. They have understood that they need to think and act as networks, learning every day from the new social media – and vice versa. There is already complex interaction between established and new media, from hour to hour.

Big, traditional, mainstream media still supply national and international readerships with first class journalism. Indeed, they still influence and change our societies every single day.

Why? Because they still produce large amounts of quality journalism and have the capacity to continue doing so. And the demand for quality journalism has in no way disappeared. Readers are better educated than ever and hence are more demanding customers – and citizens.

They crave insight and reliable information from serious media organizations that don’t insult their intelligence. Figures in Scandinavia indicate that fewer and fewer readers are looking for sensationalism. Newspapers that deliver that really are in trouble. Many of them will probably be gone in not too many years. But not the others.

So print media won’t die out in the foreseeable future. Crisis? What crisis? For sure, circulation numbers will continue to fall, but it’s possible to adapt to that. For sure, there will be profound changes – but a total collapse? The history of media technology indicates that technologies don’t kill each other; rather, they supplement one other, continuing to exist side by side.

I’m the editor for culture and op-ed for the print, web and all other platforms we provide at Aftenposten. Seen from my chair, the new, innovative reality is already here. Most of us still live in newspaper-consuming societies par excellence. Norwegian newspapers provide a good example that it’s possible to thrive and survive. In Scandinavia there isn’t as wide a gulf between quality and “red-top” media as in England and Germany, for example. Perhaps there’s something to learn from that.

One of my concerns is that Aftenposten has many readers over the age of 50. That could be seen as a very major problem. And it’s a problem that we are having a hard time attracting a younger readership. That is possibly our greatest challenge.

However today’s demographics tell us that many of the readers aged 50+ will be alive and in good health until the age of 80-90, and might continue reading newspapers for the rest of their long lives. It would be a grave mistake to forget them. We have to cater to them. Not only that: they are some of our most demanding and critical readers. And we know that when we succeed in communicating better with younger readers, we also communicate better with older ones.

Another development newspapers are experiencing, taking my own paper as an example, is an increasing number of readers on the web, as on cell phone/smart phone based platforms. We coordinate on a daily basis with the social media, and many of our journalists and editors are very active on Twitter and Facebook. Social media give us ideas for stories and feedback from readers. We are no longer monolithic media organizations but flexible networks.

I mentioned Schibsted, a Norwegian company that owns both VG and Aftenposten, the country’s two biggest papers. The company started 150 years ago with Aftenposten, containing only ads across four slim pages. Today, Schibsted is one of Europe’s biggest media companies, celebrated by many media analysts, with many legs to stand on, including paid-for ads on the web. That business started as a part of Aftenposten, was then set up as a separate entity (finn.no), and is now copied by Schibsted with considerable success many countries throughout Europe.

How can we develop quality journalism? We still have the material resources and probably make better papers than ever, in terms of professionalized, independent journalism. Of course there are many exceptions and we don’t deliver consistently good journalism every day.

In some ways it is easier to sell quality than ever before, not least, as I already hinted, because readers tend to be more sophisticated and educated and want journalism that makes them better citizens and persons.

Quality journalism means: insight; knowledge and understanding of a complex reality; analyses and qualified opinions; well-told narratives and personal journalism from the best writers of the day; surprises. It also means being selective in a world characterized by immense information overload. Newspapers need to choose some of the best material available but also point to other material, combining the best of traditional and new media. Moderation remains necessary, even if it is the rationalism of a moderating collective.

In short, we need to offer more of the same and more of the best. And something new, too. Let me just mention some of our innovative spinoff products that show Aftenposten‘s way of thinking:

We publish the magazine monthly Insight. Started just for fun, it now runs 30 000 copies a month and is turning a profit. It contains reprints from the paper and more from freelancers both in Norway and abroad. And in April 2011 we launched a new cultural magazine, K, based on the same editorial model.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? New printed products! With a market! And with instant success!

But there are even more demands to be met in the way we plan our journalism. We have to strengthen integrated editorial thinking. It isn’t easy for papers that were originally print-based to see other platforms as equally prestigious, but that is what we must do. We need think of and present journalism in different ways according to the platform, be it paper, web or smart phone. We need to continuously allow readers influence our journalism and recruit new readers through social media.

The “death of the book” has been greatly exaggerated. The same could be said about the “big media” and print newspapers. They will be around for a long time, depending on each company’s ability to transform. Non-innovative media, whether big or small, will disappear while specialized niche media will have to become even better in their niches. And what about innovative, big, mainstream media? As I said: they are likely to face a very tough, strenuous future. Yet it will also be a bright future, given their fundamental will and ability to innovate, both in print and on other platforms.

Published 1 July 2011
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Knut Olav Åmås / Eurozine

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