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How Newspapers Are Already Taking Advantage of the Digital Revolution. It’s Not Just the Internet But Mobile, Too.

Back in 1971 Intel developed its first memory chip – it stored all of 128 letters. Today a Samsung 8-gigabyte memory card can store one million newspaper pages – equivalent to about 90 years of a daily newspaper. And such changes in the semiconductor industry are only the tip of that iceberg that will help newspapers to continue reaching the masses.

“Technology has changed the landscape of traditional media, and as it advances the walls between broadcasting, newspapers, and telecommunications will collapse,” according to Hwang Chang-gyu, Samsung’s semiconductor division president and chief executive officer, who spoke to the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) Convention in Korea last week. 

His main point was that not only will printed news survive, but that the print media will adapt itself to do well in the world of the internet and mobile phones. As one who produces the technology that boosts the performance of digital products, he was in no doubt that print can use that same technology to its own advantage.

The Samsung executive made his message pretty clear just within the title of his presentation: “Any Time, Any Place: News in the Ultimate Information Society”. He warned,  ”The spread of information is being realized through super-fast wireless Internet and high-end devices. People always strive for convenience, and that accelerates the convergence of mobile devices and the use of information.”

But in an absolutely clear statement he said that no matter how digital advances digital will not kill off newspapers. Newspapers will adapt to the new technology.

That opened a fascinating debate at the 12th World Editors Forum Digital Media Round Table that was held in conjunction with the WAN meeting. And perhaps the best use of showing how newspapers are already using  the digital revolution to their own advantage came from VG, Norway’s largest circulation newspaper at some 365, 000 copies daily.

And while VG’s circulation is more than double its closest competitor, all has not been going well – it saw its circulation drop some 15,000 in 2004, revenues declined 4.5% from 2003, and advertising was down 2.7%. And what is its biggest competitor? VG Nett, its own web site. It averaged in 2004 some 664,000 readers and in Q4 that jumped to 820,000 for reasons mentioned below.

In response to the print edition’s readership decline, Bernt Olufsen, VG’s editor-in-chief, adopted new policies midway through the year vis a vis how much newspaper copy would appear on the web site. The front pages of the hardcopy and the web site would be different. No consumer stories from the newspaper appear on the web site before lunchtime; and no newspaper feature story or any column would be filed to the web site. 

At the same time the print edition made improvements. The Friday edition added a personal finance section and a larger TV section. During the week more features were added, there were new sections on Sunday for health and automobiles, and improvements were made to the printing quality.

Olufsen had told WAN’s annual meeting last year,  "Our policy is that product development should be part of everyday work. We are therefore working with evolution, not revolution. We allow editors and journalists to try ideas in the daily newspaper.”

VG, in a bid to involve its readership for all of its news products had already set up a news portal whose job it was to receive information from the public, to pay them freelance rates, and then package that information for online, mobile and print editions of the paper.

And at no time did all of that prove its worth than the Asian Tsunami that hit December 26, 2004. Scandinavians were among the largest group of tourists in Thailand and everyone back in Norway wanted to know how friends and family were – and the new mobile digital age kicked in.

According to Torry Pedersen, a VG online editor, Norwegians in Thailand were soon sending back to the VG news portal text messages, pictures, and video taken by their electronic cameras. That information was easily beating the information from other news services, particularly the news agencies. The people who were most affected had become the on-the-scene reporters making full use of all multimedia opportunities. It was the quickest and most direct way of letting friends and families, and a whole nation, know what was going on, who had survived, and sadly, who had not.

And as digital technology falls into more and more consumer hands, that trend will only continue. That Tsunami coverage served as good an example as one will find of how all information vendors can benefit from the digital revolution, increasing print circulation, web readership, and mobile phone news services, and involving their readership in the production process which they really seem to appreciate.

There are, of course, the traditionalists who believe only professional journalism should be allowed in professional media and inviting the public in general to participate will lead only to a deterioration of journalistic standards. Once again people are holding onto to the tail of the leaping tiger and instead of saying it doesn’t work they need to figure out how to make it work.

There seemed to be a general consensus at the roundtable that the mobile phone may be THAT news instrument everyone – consumer, news providers, and advertiser  -- has waited for, because it provides the mobile screen we can easily carry with us..

Surely it was no coincidence for VG’s Tsunami coverage that in Norway the mobile phone is already the most frequently used content provider – up to about five hours a day on average. A typical session runs three to five minutes.

The beauty of the mobile for information vendors is that in general users are young and they don’t mind paying for services received through their handsets, whereas on the Internet news consumers are more middle-aged and they expect news for free.

And it is a good marriage, too, between communications providers and information providers. Telephone companies may not know much about providing information but the one thing they do better than almost anyone else is billing. Information vendors don’t want to get into an administrative nightmare on pay-as-you-use news delivery, thus it seems the groujnds are there for  a perfect marriage. 

The major objection to the mobile screen at present is that it is so small. But Samsung showed prototypes of models with screens large enough to show a readable “page” that it hopes to bring out beginning in 2007.

Already mobile operators are announcing plans to transmit, even record, television over mobiles using 3G technologies and a new broadcast technology called DVB-H. A recent survey of 13-24-year-olds in the US found that 37% want to receive broadband multimedia content on their phones, and for young men aged 13-24 it was 40%. And as if a warning to communication providers, 25% of users said if their provider doesn’t provide such services then they will switch to one that does.

Jim Chisholm, a WAN strategy adviser, told the roundtable newspapers must embrace mobile. They should be sending out simple SMS messages with breaking news, encouraging readership to participate in opinion polls via the interactivity mobiles provide, and of course the feeding of text, still pictures and video to the newspaper’s newsroom.

The more people talked the more it seemed that within a few years news demographics will determine the information carrier as much as anything else. The young will depend on their mobiles for news, the middle age will get their news fix via the Internet and/or television, and as we grow older it will be the newspaper and television

The challenge for the current one or two-platform print news provider is to ensure that no matter how many different communications platforms there may be, and no matter the demographics, that they are providing the night and necessary editorial product for each.

The new digital technology world is NOT the means for others to pass newspapers by; rather it is the means for newspapers to become an integral part of the upcoming new multi-platform information world.

© Philip M. Stone of  Stone & Associates, a partner in followthemedia.com


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