Digital age hates complacency: Murdoch to newspapers

MUMBAI: The digital revolution, courtesy the Internet, is a fast-developing reality that print journalists should grasp as a huge opportunity to improve journalism and expand reach.

This was the core of the message that News Corp chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch delivered during a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

He noted that scarcely a day goes by without some claim that new technologies are fast writing newsprint's obituary. "Yet, as an industry, many of us have been remarkably complacent. Certainly, I didn't do as much as I should have after all the excitement of the late 1990s.

"I suspect many of you in this room did the same, quietly hoping that this thing called the digital revolution would just limp along. Well it hasn't it won't," he warned. Murdoch said he is a digital immigrant.

"I wasn't weaned on the Web, nor coddled on a computer. Instead, I grew up in a highly centralised world where news and information were tightly controlled by a few editors, who deemed to tell us what we could and should know. My two young daughters, on the other hand, will be digital natives. They'll never know a world without ubiquitous broadband Internet access."

Murdoch said the challenge for print journalism would be to apply a digital mindset to a new set of challenges. "We need to realise that the next generation of people accessing news and information have different expectations about the news they get, including when and how they will get it, where they will get it from and who they will get it from.

Murdoch quoted a report by the Carnegie Corporation about young people's changing habits of news consumption and what they mean for the news industry.

According to this report there is a revolution taking place in the news business today. The future course of news, says the study's author, Merrill Brown, is being altered by tech-savvy young people no longer wedded to traditional news outlets or even accessing news in traditional ways.

The study illustrates that consumers between the ages of 18-34 are increasingly using the Web as their medium for news consumption. While local TV news remains the most accessed source of news, the Internet, and more specifically, Internet portals, are quickly becoming the favored destination for news among young consumers.

"Only nine per cent of youth describe newspapers as trustworthy, a scant eight per cent find us useful, and only four per cent of respondents think we're entertaining. Among major news sources, our beloved newspaper is the least likely to be the preferred choice for local, national or international news going forward.

Murdoch stated that the youth want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it. They want to question, to probe, to offer a different angle.

He argued that newspapers in America have been slow to react. Print media owners just sat by and watched while their newspapers have gradually lost circulation. "We all know of great and expensive exceptions to this but the technology is now moving much faster than in the past. Where four out of every five Americans in 1964 read a paper every day, today, only half do. Among just younger readers, the numbers are even worse."

Why are newspapers in a state of inertia?

According to Murdoch there are a number of reasons. Firstly newspapers as a medium for centuries enjoyed a virtual information monopoly roughly from the birth of the printing press to the rise of radio.

Second, even after the advent of TV, a slow but steady decline in readership was masked by population growth that kept circulations reasonably intact.

Third, even after absolute circulations started to decline in the 1990s, profitability did not.

"But those days are gone. The trends are against us. Fast search engines and targeted advertising as well as editorial, all increase the electronic attractions by a factor of 3 or 4. And at least $4 billion a year is going into R&D to further improve this process.

"So unless we awaken to these changes, we will be relegated to the status of also-rans. But, properly done, they are an opportunity to actually improve our journalism and expand our reach."

Murdoch said while not one newspaper represented at the meeting lacked a website not many of them can honestly say that they are taking maximum advantage of those websites to serve readers and to strengthen businesses.

The future is not all gloom and doom

Despite this, Murdoch is still confident of the future, both in print and via electronic delivery platforms. After all while data shows that young people aren't reading newspapers as much as their predecessors it doesn't show they don't want news. In fact, they want a lot of news, just faster news of a different kind and delivered in a different way.

"We have unique content to differentiate ourselves in a world where news is becoming increasingly commoditised. And most importantly, we have a great new partner to help us reach this new consumer -- the Internet.

"The challenge, however, is to deliver that news in ways consumers want to receive it. In short, we have to answer this fundamental question: what do we a bunch of digital immigrants -- need to do to be relevant to the digital natives?

"We probably just need to watch our teenage kids. What do they want to know, and where will they go to get it? They want news on demand, continuously updated. And they want the option to go out and get more information, or to seek a contrary point of view."

Murdoch said News Corp will continue to invest in printed papers so they remain an important part of the reader's daily lives.

However, the Internet versions can do even more, especially in providing virtual communities for readers to be linked to other sources of information, other opinions, other like-minded people. To do that it is important to challenge and reformulate -- the conventions that so far have driven the online efforts.

He noted that News Corp has a history of challenging media orthodoxies. 20 years ago a fourth broadcast network Fox was created. What was behind that creation was a fundamental questioning of the way people got their nightly entertainment at that point. "We weren't constrained by the news at six, prime time at eight, news again at 11 paradigm.

"Instead, we shortened the prime time block to two hours, pushed up the news by an hour, and programmed the network to a younger-skewing audience.

"Similarly, we sensed ten years ago that people watching TV news felt alienated by the monolithic presentation of the news they were getting from the nightly news broadcasts or cable networks. We sensed that there was another way we could deliver that news objectively, fairly, and faster-paced. And the result was the Fox News channel, today America's number one cable news network.

"In this spirit, we're now turning to the Internet. Today, the newspaper is just a paper. Tomorrow, it can be a destination. Today, to the extent anyone is a destination, it's the Internet portals: the Yahoos, Googles, and MSNs.

"I just saw a report that showed Google News's traffic increased 90 per cent over the past year while the New York Times excellent website traffic decreased 23 per cent. The challenge for us for each of us in this room is to create an Internet presence that is compelling enough for users to make us their home page.

"Just as people traditionally started their day with coffee and the newspaper, in the future, our hope should be that for those who start their day online, it will be with coffee and our website."

Some newspapers will invest sufficient resources to continuously update the news, because digital natives don't just check the news in the morning they check it throughout the day.

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