Newspapers have been declining in prominence and relevance for decades, well before the Internet and bloggers came along.

Many newspaper titles have disappeared altogether, or have been merged, in response to the growth of radio and television. The emergence of the Internet simply reduces the market for newspapers even further. Newspapers will not disappear altogether, the merging will just keep going on. Newspapers will also have to re-think their content, padding up with a bunch of pseudo-magazines (called lifestyle) won’t do it anymore.

In response to this market pressure from radio and television (radical new technologies that newspapermen thought would have little or no impact on print), newspapers resorted to lifestyle. It made sense, a growing middle-class with more money, more leisure and more aspirations craved directions on what to wear, eat, read and visit. Of course, television has also cashed in on this middle class interest, most recently seen in the extraordinary popularity of Ten’s Masterclass Australia.

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One problem with lifestyle, or what Hartigan discretely referred to as ‘highly relevant and genuinely useful’ stories in his speech yesterday, is that it sucks resources away from the high-end and investigative journalism that attracts traditional newspaper readers. I think the New York Times is about the only american newspaper that still maintains an extensive network of  international news bureaus. The rest rely on wire services.

The second problem is that lifestyle works a lot better on the Internet than it does in newspapers. The reason is that a simple google search will generate much more useful information about any lifestyle subject than a newspaper can deliver. And the Google search can be done precisely when you need it – even on your iPhone as you stand in the supermarket aisle wanting to check the ingredients for that new recipe you want to try tonight. TV has worked out how to exploit the power of the Internet in this regard by backing their lifestyle programs with information-rich websites. Again, Masterclass is a great example.

Lifestyle may have helped newspapers pre-Internet, but it’s a losing strategy for the future. Where do they fit in? Hartigan points to the great success News has had with the site (I’m a frequent user myself), but it works because it’s on the web, it’s got nothing to do with the future of newspapers.

I hoped Hartigan might have answered this question yesterday, but he ducked it with a string of empty homilies about what constitutes great journalism and trite remarks about the importance of the reader (no kidding). Not to mention a silly defence of tabloidism which avoids the problems with that format that pisses people off (like the fake Hanson photos and the fake email).

Hartigan does quite forcibly point out that ‘breaking stories’ drives readership and points to the example of the UK MP expenses scandal (which paradoxically the Fairfax newspapers have replicated today in relation to the gold pass plane travel scandal). He, of couse, glosses the fact that stories are also broken on TV, radio and the Internet – it’s about journalism not distribution method (like a lot of old journos, Hartigan just can’t get over the fact that journalism is not the exclusive preserve of newspapers).  But as Hartigan notes, big stories are rare and they require a lot of resources. And journalistic resources have been on the decline in response to commercial pressures and the ‘lifestyle’ strategy.

Deceptively, Hartigan then goes on to have a slap at Google and Yahoo and other aggregators, without admitting the amount of traffic his sites get from these aggregators. Some newspapers get nearly half their online readership from aggregators. This leads him into a tiresome and predictable attack on bloggers etc. He’s completely wrong, of course, the success of many blogs is that their content is far more expert and better informed than the content in newspapers. I’m thinking here of a vast array of blogs written by professional economists, scientists, etc. Many of these people, btw, regularly provide content for newspapers and use their blogs to overcome the space and search / archive limitations of newspapers. Many bloggers know that it is not an either / or proposition.

Newspapers simply can’t compete with the quality (and quantity) of content on these sites. He is right that too many of them (us) spend too much time worrying about, and responding to, newspapers. But I think that is just a transitional phenomenon, as bloggers, and the blogosphere, matures it will lose some of its obsessive interest in newspapers.

But if the content on sites like Crikey and blogs is all so bad why is Hartigan so worried about it? His concern betrays the threat they, collectively, pose for his business. Conversely, he fails to understand just how important these sites, like the aggregators, are in driving traffic, and interest, in newspaper sites. After all this time, Hartigan still seems to resist the potency of the search / link power of the Internet. Strange.

Hartigan is right to identify great journalism as the last, best hope for the future of newspapers. Reading his speech, I’m not convinced that News or anyone else has the business model or the courage to invest the sums that would be required to deliver enough great journalism to slow the steady decline of newspapers.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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