Another megamerger, another Internet world-eating conglomerate emerges. Apart from its size, the AOL-Time/Warner deal is a big deal: The marriage of AOL and Time Warner matters (if it goes throtwo reasons. First, it combines one of the biggest Net presences with a broadband delivery systefinally makes real the prospect of a fat pipe in every home.
Second, and the issue today, is the “victory” of the new media over the old. AOL, a veritable pup, is taking over such venerable media giants as CNN, Warner and Time, a magisterial presence among traditional media. Since the Internet spread its tendrils, there’s bespeculation that it would kill old-style media (we’re talking mostly newspapers) but the fears hpremature. Does this deal mark the new dawn for media and the final reckoning for the newspaper (gulp)?
I don’t think so.
The fate of the newspaper is really two separate issues. The first is the form in which we get the news: the delivery system. Paper is user-friendly, but new digital inks are erasing that advantage. Stir in the ecological dimension, and you’ve got a pretty compelling reason to count the days of the newspaper. Moreover, the Net offers a 24-hour news cycle, accessible at the reader’s convenience, with contents tailored to his or her preferences. No newspaper could hope to compete with the sheer volume of information available on the Net, nor its ease of access.
Newspapers met the challenge head-on: By the end of 1994, there were 78 online editions. The American Journalism Review reports that there were 4,925 papers worldwide with online editions last year, about half of them from the U.S.
But being online isn’t the same as succeeding, and that brings us to the second issue, and the one that has yet to be decided: Who will deliver the news? Will it be your traditional local newspaper or will that role be usurped by new media entities? This is where the AOL/Warner merger fits in.
The merger creates a single platform that combines content with a serious delivery system. The company will have 100 million subscribers to ply with cable systems, Net access and content.
Local papers have faced threats before. Sidewalk, Microsoft’s attempt to provide local content, was supposed to challenge local papers for readers. It failed. The Net was supposed to deprive papers of their classified ads, which provide U.S. papers about $18 billion a year, represent 40 percent of all revenue and more than 70 percent of operating profits. (In Britain, they account for 12 percent of national papers’ revenues, and 51 percent of that of regional papers.)
The threat hasn’t materialized. Three of the biggest U.S. media groups, the New York Times, Dow Jones & Co. and Tribune Co., are all projecting a profitable 2000, with increased ad revenues. In 1998, U.S. newspaper ad revenues were up 6.3 percent to $43.9 billion.
What happened? In the first place, online editions have not cannibalized the traditional media. A survey by the Newspaper Association of America revealed that more people are reading news online, but that isn’t hurting the traditional media. Only 15 percent say they read a printed paper less frequently since going online, and 8 percent said they read more. The vast majority, 74 percent, said there was no change in their reading habits.
Second, the rise of the dot-coms has created floods of money for traditional media. In the first nine months of last year, the companies spent $1.37 billion on advertising in traditional media in the U.S.; $265 million of that went to newspapers.
What explains the enduring appeal of the newspaper? Primarily, people want news that is relevant to their daily lives and only local newspapers provide that. The “name” papers serve a healthy diet of foreign and national news, and the wire services offer a nice supplement to that. But community information doesn’t make it to those wires and, according to one survey, 72 percent of visitors to 120 newspaper Web sites say they go there to get local news.
That means that newspapers — in whatever form — will maintain important links to their readership. But they are no guarantees of their future. Change is coming and they have to do a better job of preparing for it.
Most online editions are just digital shadows of the paper one. Content is shoveled from one to the other. That won’t do. Digital media don’t distinguish between words, sounds and images. Increasingly sophisticated (or jaded, take your pick) readers will demand more engaging sites. Interactivity is going to be integral part of the process.
Web sites will have to do more than just present the news. To add value for local consumers, Web newspaper sites need to include other sorts of information, and links to the sites that provide it. Newspapers may have to become community portals. (Funny, but that is what they are supposed to be anyway.) The San Jose Mercury is a fine example of what a newspaper will have to look like.
The Wall Street Journal does an excellent job of serving up a 21st-century news site, but it’s a subscription-based system (the only one I am aware of) and caters to a very particular clientele. Its model is a success — they finally got in the black in September — but I don’t know who else can offer that type of service.
One thing is for sure: Standards for concision and accuracy must be maintained, if not raised. Creating portals creates conflicts of interest and editors must raise their consciousness accordingly. Readers are going to be more demanding, and they will have more options that are awfully easy to access.
other words, competition is heating up. The destruction of newspapers is not imminent, but they can’t take anything for granted. There are already temptations to cut corners and market pressures will only intensify them; both must be resisted. Harder, faster and better: the journalists’ mantra in the digital age.
Brad Glosserman (firstname.lastname@example.org)