May 142012

The head of Google News, Richard Gingras, last week discussed how the news industry is evolving at Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation.

Much of Richard’s discussion centred around disruption – the newspaper industry was disrupted in the 1950s by television and by the 1980s most print markets had seen several mastheads reduced to one or two.

The remaining outlets were able to book fat profits from their monopoly or duopoly position in display and classified advertising.

By 2000, the web had killed that business model and the newspaper industry was in a decline that continues today as aggregator sites like Huffington Post steal page views and Google News further changes the distribution model.

One of the problems for the news industry is how different the online mediums are from print, radio or television broadcast. The struggles of media startup The Global Mail is a good example of this.

In the middle of last year news started trickling out that one of the Australian Broadcasting Corporations’s top journalists, Monica Attard, had left the broadcaster to set up The Global Mail, an online news site funded by Wotif founder Graeme Wood.

The site launched on schedule in February 2012 and underwhelmed readers with pedestrian content and a confusing layout. By May, Monica Attard announced she was leaving the organisation she’d founded.

Tim Burrowes of the media site Mumbrella examined why the Global Mail is struggling, his Nine problems stopping The Global Mail from getting an audience details how the site doesn’t use online media effectively.

At heart is a fundamental mismatch between the methods of journalists raised in the “glory days” of print and broadcast journalism against those of the online world, not least the much harsher financial imperatives of those publishing on the web.

One key problem it the TL;DR factor – Too Long; Didn’t Read. Where online readers tend to leave stories after around four hundred words.

Richard Gringas is quoted as encountering this problem when he worked at online magazine, Salon.

At Salon, articles were paginated, but only 27% of readers made it to the end of the four-page articles. Compared to competitors, Richard was told, this was a good benchmark. But with fresh eyes, he was astounded that a product was being produced with the knowledge that the vast majority of the audience would not consume the entire piece. Richard loves the long form, but if the objective is to convey information, we need to think about the right form for the right medium at the right time.

So “long form” journalism has to be written the right way and it has to be backed up with good visual components and have “short form” versions suited to the more impatient readers who make up the bulk of the web audience.

The New York Times made a step in this direction with their iEconomy series on how the US middle classes have been displaced with manufacturing’s move to China.

An even better example of journalists using the web well is The Verge’s Scamworld where an online expose of Internet get rich quick schemes and the conmen behind them.

Scamworld shows us what skilled journalists can do online. The amazing thing is the site’s new steam is tiny compared to those of established outlets like the New York Times, Guardian, Fairfax or those of News Corporation.

This failure to execute by incumbent news organisations isn’t because they are lacking talent – every young, and not so young, journalist has been required to have multimedia skills and the ability to file stories in multiple formats for at least a decade.

Old Media’s problems lies in the mindsets of senior journalists, editors and their managements who are locked into a 1950s way of thinking where fat advertising revenues funded the adventures and expense accounts of roving reporters who tough as nails editors occasionally bullied into filing stories.

That model started to die in the 1980s and the Internet gave it the last rites.

Richard Gringas’ discussion at Harvard shows news and journalism isn’t dead, but it is evolving. Just like many other disrupted industries, the news media has to adapt to a changed world.

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