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Panpa Bulletin : September 2006
24 | PANPA BULLETIN August 2006 Doomsayers who predict the end of newspapers within the next few dec- ades frequently argue that the longest-lingering will be those big-brand titles that offer sup- erior journalism. I think the opp- osite is more likely. Community papers, report- ing over-the-fence news and providing local information services, are shaping as the stayers of the industry. And one way they're planning to keep it that way is by more closely em- bracing what many see as the enemy: the internet. The future of newspapers has been widely discussed in the past week with the British weekly The Economist predicting that a large number of closures is "only a matt- er of time'' because of the migra- tion of advertising to the internet. It is easy to be alarmed by these predictions but they are in reality little more than guesswork. The media world is undoubt- edly going through a period of change but change does not automatically equate to extinc- tion. As I have previously argued, there is a lot of life left in the old dogs yet, and a massive collective will to find the formulae that will prolong life. But some genres of newspa- pers are clearly more threatened than others. Those in the middle of the spectrum face the great- est dangers, while those at the edges have the greatest prospects for long-term success because they have specialised audiences. Papers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post are concentrating on developing national and international audi- ences and several British media companies are talking up their global brands, while pitching for the sophisticated business- academic market of AB audiences. Locally, The Australian and The Australian Financial Review are best positioned to benefit from their appeal to this market. And at the other end of the scale, community papers -- or sub- urbans, as they are sometimes dismissively known -- are best positioned for longevity because they concentrate on home news that is closest to the interests of their customers. Many forces are combining to give community papers more relevance. They are the same forces that are increasingly keep- ing us in our suburbs: the per- ceived safety of familiar places in a world of fear and uncertainty. We see the rest of the world as a dangerous place and some- times it's as close as a few sub- urbs away. People have always been in- terested in over-the-back-fence news, especially if it involves folk we know, and this interest grows in times when the news seems increasingly dominated by in- tractable wars in faraway places. No one can solve the Middle East imbroglio, so why bother trying? We can, however, protest to the local council about new parking restrictions or influence school activities or new devel- opments down the street. We avoid driving to eat out, so we need to know about local res- taurants, shops and services. In other words, we engage with our own communities far more than we engage with the world. Mark Elgood, the new manag- ing director of the News Limited community group of newspa- pers -- almost 100 titles in the Quest, Cumberland, Leader and Messenger groups -- says his sec- tor is growing, with increasing advertising sales, rather than the declines that are hitting some other sectors. He says research shows the community sector is regarded as credible and relevant to its mar- ket because it fills a community space. He sees the challenge is to build on that engagement and he is turning to the internet to do it. Through the Queensland- based Quest newspapers, Elgood is trialling a new website called Where I Live (www.whereilive. com.au), which he hopes can grow into a national grid of com- munity information sites provid- ing detailed local information generated by users. Type in your postcode and you'll find local news, informa- tion, events, groups, notice- boards and so on. At present only postcodes in south-eastern Queensland have much data on them but as more and more community titles start to publi- cise the site and its services, this will grow. The Where I Live concept is part of a virtuous circle involv- ing the group's community titles. The public provides information, some of which will make its way into print; the newspaper pro- vides the publicity and promo- tion that generates content for the site. Far from threatening the newspaper, it expands its reach and provides the avenue for more advertising revenue. Community titles are not known for their invigorating journalism. I have in the past been critical of the lack of in- depth reporting and willingness to dig among the nod-and-wink deals that so often seem to de- cide the direction of council de- cision-making. I can't see that changing to any great degree ei- ther, because the business model does not allow for the high cost of employing teams of qual- ity journalists. But with the addi- tion of citizen-based journalism through sites such as Where I Live, local mastheads can further engage with their local custom- ers. In this sense the internet is an empowering technology, an opportunity rather than a threat. The Economist may believe it will kill newspapers but, step by step, it is helping to create the interac- tive newspaper. It is worthy of note that in the wake of the death-of-news- papers debate, a new news- paper war has erupted in London this week with the launch of a pair of freebies: London Lite and Thelondonpaper (published by News International, a division of News Corporation, which also owns News Limited, publisher of The Australian). Both are try- ing to build online communities of readers and give more than a passing nod to the look and dy- namics of a blog. I was taken by one innovation in Thelondonpaper: an invitation to readers to help decide part of the content of the paper. Given that it is aimed at a generation of text-mess- aging mobile phone enthusiasts, readers are invited to say whether they want more offerings from col- umnist Jaromir Rutkowski. If you like his column, you sim- ply text "more". If you don't, just text "bore". Now there's an interesting concept. Is anyone game enough to try it? Reproduced with kind permission of The Australian Mark Day argues the future of Australian newspapers isn t so grim especially at the opposite end of the scale -- iconic upmarket mastheads or community papers They re local, they re vocal and they re built to last Community papers, reporting over- the-fence news and providing local information services, are shaping as the stayers of the industry
November December 2006