Tech won't save news

Ever since the launch of Apple’s iPad there has been a stream of articles declaring the tablet PC to be the saviour of news organisations. For some reason many people think that this new technology is going to be the saviour that newspapers, with their backs against the financial wall, have been waiting for. For some reason they think that taking an old formula and applying it to a new formula is going to make all the difference.

I’m of the opposite opinion. I don’t believe the solution to current news organisation woes is a new technology or platform. I don’t believe a technical solution is what is needed here. Even if it is this new technology which is the source of so many of the challenges facing the industry.

What’s needed now is not just a new digital way of publishing news – iPad pages instead of newsprint – but a revision of how and why news organisations cover news. It’s not good enough to simply reproduce what would have been done in print in a new digital format. That’s not going to grab or convert readers.

The world is changing – readers now get their news through any number of channels, from television to radio to the Internet. Simply doing what you were always doing but doing it now on a digital planet is not a big enough change.

When I was younger, at school, we had to be subscribers to The Star newspaper if we wanted the news. Apart from The Star and its other regional counterparts, the only other sources of news was the 7 o’clock news on television. We didn’t have the Internet, so we relied on these few sources for what we knew.

Fast forward to 2010 and the rules for this game are radically different. Today we get our news from newspapers, televisions, the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, cellphones and so on. Something that happens in the world right now is old news in my eyes just a few minutes later. I’m not waiting until I get home to read the news.

In an era swamped with information, the old “newspaper” metaphor is dying. This is not, as some people suggest, a failure of print versus digital. It is simply the failure of the old model.

Today, readers get their news from any number of sources and have far less loyalty to one or other publication.

Newspapers aren’t dying just because readers are going online. It’s because they are going online and are inundated with information. They don’t need to subscribe to this or that publication to get their news. They simply open their RSS reader, Twitter client or web browser and browse the most recent news. Loyalty to one or other publication is largely a thing of the past and simply throwing more technology at it – such as the iPad – doesn’t change that.

What does matter now, more than ever, is relevancy. That might mean news that is specific to my hometown, or news that caters to my personal interests. Either way, the one thing I don’t need is more international news. As we move further into a globalised world the thing that I miss most is news that affects me. Chilean miners, US political struggles and floods in Haiti are interesting but not as compelling as that news that happens in my neighbourhood or city.

I’m also interested, most often, in the news that friends and contacts recommend to me. Probably because if they find it interesting it has some relevance to me. It’s this that news organisations need to think very seriously about. Networks such as Facebook and Twitter are where readers share news, the place where news articles are shared and passed on. It’s here where news organisations need to be focusing attention.

News organisations need to go back to basics. Newspapers don’t create communities as much as they reflect communities. Newspapers need to look at how they help the community around them grow and thrive; the community that already exists without them. Sometimes that may be through a tablet PC-focused publication but it could also be through email, mobile phone, or even print.

The platform is not the issue. The content still is.

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Tech won't save news