If the readers come,the money will follow: thoughts On Alan Rusbridger’s “Newspapers in the age of blogs”

Is print media dead?  Type these four words into Google and you will find hundreds of thousands of links to articles, videos, blog posts and message boards devoted to this topic.  The diatribes most concerned about the demise of print media are, unsurprisingly, coming largely from those who stand to lose the most if print goes under: the journalists, publishers, and media magnates that depend on print circulation and advertising revenue to survive.

This was demonstrated in a speech given by Alan Rusbridger, editor of British newspaper The Guardian, in 2006 for the RSA.  Here Rusbridger discusses the changing landscape of print media, including potential competitors to print media such as online news aggregators like Digg and online news publications like Huffington Post.  Many of the sites he mentioned have proven to be unviable in the almost seven years since the talk was given, but the underlying concepts are still being grappled with by some of the major media flagships.

In particular, Rusbridger discusses the two-fold issue facing print media.  The first issue is the loss of circulation and readership, as a growing number of tech-savvy consumers are unwilling to buy a newspaper when they can access unlimited news content for free online.  Adding to this is the decrease in advertising revenues, as many traditional advertisers are opting for online ad space from websites and posting boards like Craigslist, which is substantially cheaper and may reach a wider audience. 

­­­Rusbridger also discusses the ways in which The Guardian is attempting to fight back from this decline, such as creating web content and offering a Comment section to engage readers in conversation.  Interestingly, he argues that the protection of content is not a priority for him; rather, he would prefer aggregate sites pick up stories to direct as many eyeballs as possible to the site, figuring that where there are people, the money will come.

In my opinion, media is not dying; it’s evolving, and the ways that media companies look at revenue management needs to evolve in kind.  The pleasures of the physical newspaper that Rusbridger describes now have direct technological analogues.  Instead of saving an article in a newspaper to read later in the bath, I can save it to Instapaper and read it on my iPad.  When I want a serendipitous romp through my news, I don’t need a newspaper, I have Metafilter.  Instead of a family dividing up the newspaper around the breakfast table, the modern family can subscribe to the New York Times Online, which can be made available on every computer, tablet or smartphone in the home.   The new age of media needs to recognize that users will pay for content, provided it is user-friendly and easily accessible.  Rather than focus on retaining as much revenue as possible from the old model, newspapers should now ask: How can I best get the news to my modern reader?  After all, if the readers come, the money will follow.

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