A tale of two papers

Posted: December 15, 2010 in Bermuda, internet, iPad, media, Technology
Tags: ,

It’s been interesting week for online news junkies.  Here in Bermuda, The Royal Gazette gave its website a much-needed makeover on Tusday while in London, The Sunday Times launched what is arguably the most impressive iPad version yet of a major newspaper.

Of course we’re comparing apples and oranges here in terms of resources and readership but I think it’s interesting to see how two newspapers, both established in the 1820s, are trying to figure how how to stay viable and relevant in a rapidly-changing media landscape.

The Gazette site really couldn’t have got any worse – although at the time of writing a poll on the site embarrassingly showed that 38% thought the new version was either “worse” or “much worse” (57% said it was improved or much improved).

At first glance, the site certainly looks cleaner, more readable and better organised but it doesn’t take long to realise that the changes are little more than cosmetic and that the Gazette still doesn’t really get the internet, digital publishing and just how disruptive and game-changing the technology will continue to be to the media business as a whole.

For a start, the new site launched with news from the previous day’s paper! As usual, the site wasn’t updated until around 10 a.m. – more than three hours after I’ve had an e-mail news summary delivered to my inbox by Bernews (who also update me by text of any major breaking story). And if I’m listening to VSB or ZBM, I’ll have heard the Gazette front page read out before I’ve dropped the kids off.

As Bernews has so effectively proved this year, local readers want – and indeed now expect – to get their news fast and delivered to as many different devices and platforms as possible. Anything else is old news and becoming less relevant and useful by the day.

Today’s technology is both a threat and an opportunity and what was totally underwhelming about the new Gazette site was that none of it was actually new and exciting. I realise this is a work in progress but the lack of interactive elements, multimedia and other elements that make a news site so compelling was disappointing to say the least – certainly for a major relaunch such as this.

The RSS feed works well (although not in Google Chrome) but many parts of the site simply didn’t seem to work. If your search engine returns not a single result for “Paula Cox”, then clearly you have a problem. Several links simply didn’t work or pointed to the wrong page – when I tried to sign up for EMail Alerts, I was sent to the Classified page (where you still can’t post an ad online). Irritatingly, the Gazette also still doesn’t hyperlink web URLs and email addresses in stories. Come on guys, this is web 101!

And I was hoping that when I clicked on the image of RG Magazine or The Bottom Line (the magazines owned and distributed by the Gazette) maybe a digital edition would pop up. Instead there was nothing but a blank page. [Here’s a tip: it will take you minutes to put one up free via the excellent Issuu.com]

I could go on  – basic stuff like spelling triathlon “triathalon” in the navigation menu, for example – but enough all ready. I’m sure those things will get fixed and improved over time.

Why does all this matter?

Because newspapers matter. Because training and developing responsible journalists and editors matters. Because if newspapers and other traditional media don’t find a way to adapt and survive financially in the internet age, those values will be greatly diminished and we will be the poorer for it.

Much of what masquerades as news on the internet is merely opinion and conjecture. Whatever the Ewart Browns, Sarah Palins and Sepp Blatters of the world think, real journalism doesn’t just regurgitate press releases; it asks awkward questions, filters out the propaganda and gives depth, context and analysis.  We need that just as much as the fast-breaking headline.

Of course I am biased as someone who spent most of his career as a print journalist and editor – 19 years of it at the Gazette in fact – but I do think these values and skills are important. If I seem overly critical of the Gazette, it’s because as the island’s only daily paper it has a responsibility to everyone in Bermuda to be as good as it can possibly be. However, attaining and maintaining high standards is easier said than done.

These days everyone on the web wants content but no one wants to pay for it. Proper news gathering is an expensive and labour-intensive business and if we value it, we should be prepared to pay for it in the same way as paying for music and movies.

At least that’s what Rupert Murdoch is banking on.

Depending on your point of view, he has either taken a calculated risk or a reckless gamble in turning The Times and Sunday Times’ websites into pay-to-view and introduced digital subscriptions that also include iPad editions. About $4 a week gets you full access to the sites and downloadable editions of the papers.

The Times app launched earlier this year has been average at best but the Sunday Times version, which launched last weekend, was another story all together. From a technical aspect, it was spectacular once some initial download glitches had been worked out in the first few hours.

Each edition – you can buy individual editions as well as a subscription – serves up an iBooks-type bookshelf of the 12 sections of the paper which can be individually downloaded. Downloads are fast and the issues are easy to navigate and read. The photography is gorgeous and there are lots of extras such as video clips, trailers and additional graphics as well links to external materials and the paper’s website. It is an impressive piece of technology.

But how many people will pay for it when there is so much free news available online? And is it the future of newspapers?

Sunday papers and periodicals like Time and Newsweek are arguably the news publications most in danger of becoming stale and irrelevant in the internet age. Indeed, Newsweek was recently bought by the Daily Beast, an internet-only newspaper. But devices like the iPad and the slew of tablets that will follow may present their best chance of  survival and even growth. On an iPad, behemoth papers like the Sunday Times become much more portable and, to my mind, more engaging than print.

The big issue is whether enough regular readers will buy subscriptions to offset the precipitous decline in paper sales and whether enough new readers will think the Sunday Times a unique enough product to be worth paying for. I love the app because I’ve grown up with the Sunday Times and when I lived in the UK, immersing myself in its sections on a Sunday morning was one of life’s great pleasures. Being able to now have the whole paper at my fingertips on a Sunday morning in Bermuda instead of having to wait until Monday and pay $11.95 for it, is just wonderful.

But if you aren’t already a Sunday Times reader familiar with the paper or you haven’t grown up with a newspaper-buying habit – and an awful lot of people under 30 simply don’t buy a newspaper of any kind, period – it’s likely to be a tough sell.

It is not unthinkable that in 10 years or less, the idea of buying a newspaper printed on dead trees instead of downloading an app will seem as pointless as buying a black and white television or a cassette player.

But if it means papers will survive, that may not be bad news.

  1. Kevin says:

    “real journalism doesn’t just regurgitate press releases; it asks awkward questions, filters out the propaganda and gives depth, context and analysis.  We need that just as much as the fast-breaking headline.”

    Given this statement, I wonder what you think of Assange’s defensive position that Wikileaks is essentially a new media organization, of which he is the editor-in-chief, and therefore should have the rights of other more traditional media organizations.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      If you publish then yes, you should be accorded similar rights but with publication comes responsibility so while I am appalled at the shoot-the-messenger mentality driving the witch hunt against Assange and welcome the transparency he seeks to bring, I am not sure that wikileaks is entirely a good thing. Is everything written meant to be read by everyone? It’s a question that goes to the very heart of the internet publishing age.

      I’m very interested in hearing other people’s views on this.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Chris, the redesign is where it starts, not stops.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Jeremy, I look forward to seeing future developments. Just make sure you get someone to test them before you let them out in the wild 🙂

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