Dear journalism, we need to have a little talk about the internet…

Journalists ask questions. We often ask hard questions without flinching. Yet there’s some evidence we don’t ask the really difficult ones of ourselves.

A prime example of that is the continued instability caused by the migration to digital platforms and an inability to bridge the gap left by declining print sales.

A quick read of the comments section on the likes of holdthefrontpage will tell you that those flying the flag in regional, local and national news still aren’t sure about the push for Facebook likes, Twitter follows or page impressions as a metric for success.

The fall-out from Trinity Mirror’s digital story targets and the mud-slinging between the company and departing reporter Gareth Davies reinforced the feeling that the good ship online didn’t have all of its deckhands sailing in the same direction.

While the decision to trade blows online — somewhat ironically — over the direction of the Croydon Advertiser may be open for for debate, there’s certainly the need for journalism to have a frank discussion about how it really does plan to deal with the problem child that is the internet.

It needs to ask those difficult questions.

Among those who are doing just that are Hsiang Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim. Their new paper, Reality Check, considers an almost Sliding Doors-esque situation where newspapers in the US hadn’t embarked on a two decade long flirtation with online content:

“Twenty years into their experiment with the web, it is time to scrutinize demand for newspapers’ digital offerings, to challenge newspaper firms’ technology-driven strategy, and to critically examine unchecked assumptions about the future of newspapers.”

Whether those behind the push for digital like it or not, this is a discussion which needs having with all optinons on the table. After all, this is an industry in the UK which launched and ditched a national publication in just over two months.

Think about that for a minute. Just over two months. That’s a drop in the ocean compared to a number of digital offerings which can boast big numbers but not the big advertising balance sheet alongside it.

The decision by newspapers such as The Independent and The Reading Post to go online only show that some publishers are prepared to put their digital money where their mouths are. And the sensible betting money is on more finally leaping off the newsprint diving board in the coming months and years.

But Chyi and Tenenboim’s work does pose an interesting question. What if publishers climbed down off the high board and jumped the other way?

When I first began working on websites for a regional media group, the mantra was always the same: because newspapers had been relatively slow to recognise the opportunities of the internet they couldn’t stake a solid claim online as they had once done in traditional formats. It was why they needed to give away content online to ensure they got the eyeballs and drive digital ad revenue. I even argued this very point with former Birmingham Mail editor Steve Dyson when trying to persuade him to whack an exclusive online ASAP rather than wait for print (I lost and a rival scooped it online — but print sales did go up, so Steve will probably claim that as victory).

What if newspapers hadn’t given in to the internet, though? What if they decided enough was enough? What if they opted to focus on the product which still makes the lion’s share of the revenue?

It would take a bold publisher to decide to shut up the online shop and go print-only. But in a world where regional and local newspapers are seeing double-digit decline in sales and the focus is on ‘managing decline’ (a wonderful piece of spin talk if ever there was one), the argument could be made that some actually have very little to lose and could do with trying to throw double six on the dice.

Print-only wouldn’t work for all publications, but it’s interesting to note that some relatively new start-ups, such as The Bristol Cable, have recognised a value in ink and paper.

Much has been made of the generic nature of online content on newspaper websites (and I’m certainly not wanting to even go down the clickbait route) and it would mean an end to every regional news website telling me ‘what time such and such a football match kicked off’. And I certainly wouldn’t be able to find out the ‘seven things we’ve learned in the last week’. But if publications could put content back on the throne and develop unique and original content would readers begin to see the value of print once more?

Some argue that digital readership and declining print sales show that readers have already declared what they want. While making his case for web targets being a way to boost journalism, my old boss David Higgerson made a highly convincing argument about how digital audiences had forced reporters to consider the value of their own work:

Journalists should always be asking whether they are doing something because it will interest readers, or just because they’ve always done it.

Audiences will always be and should always be at the heart of our decision-making. But is the drive to capture all online eyeballs, regardless of who they are attached to really going to drive long-term sustainability and build engaged and supportive audience communities?

In fairness to David, he does make the point that ‘quick wins’ can help create the breathing space for reporters to pursue those stories which will not tick the populist box but which are still valuable in terms of the ‘service’ of local journalism. But the changes to content strategy and overall output online does pose questions about both the role of newspapers and the sort of coverage they offer and the readers they are producing it for.

The internet has blurred audience boundaries and forced newspapers to fight in dark alleyways which had once been brightly lit thoroughfares. They’re competing with people and organisations who know the landscape as well as — if not better than them — in some places.

Which is why it would be interesting to see whether Chyi and Tenenboim’s world of non-digital would offer legacy media an alternative route.

Perhaps the gate could still be shut even though at least one horse has already bolted?

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