A number of contradictory vectors are now affecting the future of news delivery.

  •  A continuing contraction of print audiences, and subsequently traditional newsroom resources, across print and broadcast media.
  •  Increasing levels of citizen participation.
  •  Increasing levels of control by governments and corporations on output and access to knowledge.
  •  A diversity in divergence in media channels.
  •  An ever-increasing range of available sources.

All these factors present threat and opportunity, but all too often our industry chooses to dwell on the downside rather than the up.

So let’s deal with these in reverse order.

At one time, in most parts of the world, news consumers bought or subscribed to only one or maybe two newspapers.

Today, thanks to the Internet, readers browse across a wide range of channels. Downside: They only read very few pages per visit. Upside: They are far more likely to visit your site than before. Your challenge is how you get them to come back more often and stay on your site. Question: Do you have a strategy that addresses these two points by signaling current and future content, and by maximizing navigation?

I’ve long argued that what technology has delivered is not convergence but divergence. Convergence is a word coined in the 1960s and hijacked by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte in the 1990s to describe the technological merger of computer, phone and television. The reality is that today we interact with a diversity of media platforms, each with its own range of unique advantages and features.

Newspapers, particularly the vast majority that are locally based, are in an extraordinary position to exploit these differences — in print, on the desk and in the pocket. The opportunities range from targeting a neighborhood and creating social media clusters to helping a retailer focus on a particular group through mobile geo-targeting.

I hear all the time about “government restrictions on messaging.” Some of this is quite illogical, for example restraints some agencies place on their public safety workers to speak openly to the press. And there is an ever-increasing number of bureaucratic press offices whose main function seem to be stopping local media from everyday access to everyday happenings.

But newspapers can exploit these barriers to create big-picture opportunities, attracting new readers and advertisers as a result.

Role of journalism

Citizen participation: Simply, I hate the phrase “citizen journalist.” Just because you write doesn’t make you a journalist.

I am honored that my writing is read all around the world, whether it’s loved or hated. But I am not a journalist, simply an enthusiast. Today the role of real journalists is more important than ever. With a newsroom of 50 or 100 professional journalists, an editor can rest easy in the knowledge that the content they produce is accurate and objective.

Faced with 500 or 5,000 citizen contributors, however, it’s a different world. But in there are experts, thought-leaders, and even humans with a logical, often alternative view, which editors can, and should, tap.

How do we make the most of this energetic debate? Do we have the resources and taxonomical tools that can handle this? If we can fully exploit this richness, then newspapers truly have a way to invigorate society and recover their value, both financially and locally.

Now, to address the print/digital divide. The issue is not one of readership. People continue to consume the news we publish.

There are also the related challenges of encouraging younger people to actively participate in civic issues. This detachment is not the news media’s fault, of course, but it’s the media’s duty to address.

The fact is that there is not enough investment in time, creativity or money to encourage engagement across the generations. Basic research shows that people connect the most tightly with media channels when they are young and that their engagement declines as they get older.

This has been true of newspaper readership for more than 30 years. It will also turn out to be true for Facebook and Twitter.

But few media executives understand these dynamics.

As a non-journalist, I love writing. But my passion is understanding the dynamics of news consumption. We are great at debating the values of who/what we are, and whining on about the past.

Our challenge is to convert these real, definable factors into a plan of action.

Jim Chisholm can be reached at jim@jimchisholm.net.

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