David Amerland David Amerland, author of SEO Help, Online Marketing Help and Brilliant SEO
As I am writing this, the UK newspaper scene, arguably one of the world's oldest, best-established news gathering industries, resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland being rained upon by the ashes of News of the World's contrite (and forced) immolation, inhabited by newspaper brands wondering which among them will provide the next bonfire fodder.

What happened? Pundits will point the finger at Rupert Murdoch and his drive for success. Supporters will say that it was a one-off mistake made in the heat of the moment and unlikely to be repeated. Both sides would be wrong.

While the wire-tapping and phone-hacking scandal will have to run its course and taint the newspaper industry on both sides of the Atlantic, the root of the problem started much earlier and lies much deeper.

Traditional media (ie. newspapers) struggled to get the web and when they thought they did they found that the only way they had of making any kind of headway in it was to give their content away for free and therefore completely undermine the paid-content model they had relied upon to keep them afloat since their inception.

The issue, on the surface at least, appears to be money. After all the newspaper industry, just like any other, needs a healthy bottom line to maintain it. The real issue however is much starker: relevance.

Where information travels via social networks and the real-time web faster than at any time in our history, newspapers find themselves sitting on the sidelines, watching their own gameDavid Amerland
In a world where citizen journalism provides coverage with immediacy, richness of raw detail and low cost of delivery that no newspaper can ever hope to match, and where information travels via social networks and the real-time web faster than at any time in our history, newspapers find themselves sitting on the sidelines, watching their own game.

When hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Twitter became a source of information better, faster and more reliable than any newspaper (and history repeated itself during the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan). When the Egyptian uprising took off, Facebook played a central role in organising a cohesive movement made of disparate but determined parties.

These are areas where traditionally we rely upon the press to lead with opinion and information. The press, however, now finds itself riding in too late in terms of content, being out of touch in terms of relevancy and failing to provide uniqueness or leadership. And as far as opinion is concerned, with a dwindling readership across every newspaper on the globe, who cares?

It is no accident that in the age of the web, where information has become cheaper to disseminate, the newspapers which continue to do well are the ones which offer the kind of deep, expert analysis we can find nowhere else. What these newspapers have cracked is uniqueness and being unique is what makes information valuable across the web.

The storm brewing through the press today, as more and more newspapers and newspaper editors become embroiled in the phone-hacking scandal is, in hindsight, an inevitable one caused by a change in the way information is accessed by us. In order to compete with social media channels, which seemed to undermine them without even trying, some newspapers gave in to the temptation to skirt laws regarding personal privacy, in pursuit of the unique content which would make their information valuable and relevant again.

When it comes to the press there is a dichotomy of purpose here at work which we need to understand. We need newspapers to safeguard our democracy. In order to do this they have to function in an investigative, hard-hitting and analytical way, intended to probe into the mechanics of our world, ask uncomfortable questions and shed light on issues which many would rather remain hidden.

Newspapers also need to be profitable. In our capitalistic world we have found a way to tie the safeguard of our political system to the profit motive and it is here that things get interesting. Because we, as information consumers, are hardwired to seek information in order to understand our world we instinctively go towards channels which we feel can give it to us fast, first, and with the greatest degree of accuracy, second.

We know, for instance, that social media is not a very accurate way of getting information, but it is a very fast one. We also know that newspapers, following a strict code of journalistic conduct, are usually accurate but, these days, increasingly out of date. So our first recourse is to hit the web rather than go for print which means that newspapers are treading upon a path of decline from which there can be no escape. Unless, of course, they find a way to recapture our attention.

It was upon this crucible that journalism, in the News International case, fell so short of the journalistic standards we usually associate it with. It revived the fortunes of print (to some extent) at a cost to its integrity and its long-term future if discovered (which happened). In the process it has hastened the decline of the press by tainting its institution at a time when it can ill afford any scandals.

The question now is, where do we go from here? Is it time perhaps to re-examine the role the press plays and envision a future without newspapers? Should that ever come about we would need safeguards regarding transparency in our institutions and the protection of the individual in ways we have yet to even imagine. Conceivably a world full of WikiLeaks would be better for democracy than any number of newspapers like News of the World could make it. But that world would also be a world without the voice of journalism as a collective, adding a point of view which can often be uncomfortable, reflective, incisive and, ultimately, enriching.

For the moment we still need newspapers, though they clearly need to change. The interim answer may be supplied by the same thing which caused the issue in the first place: technology. Rather than use technology to simply translate their old 'locked content' model into a digital equivalent, newspapers could play a significant role on the web through a presence which fully acknowledges the search engine optimisation potential presented and utilises the web to attract traffic at levels which few can imagine. The Huffington Post is a classic example of what is possible in that regard, providing highly visible, often compelling content which comfortably compares with that of a mid-level newspaper. The Wall Street Journal is another.

Maybe the future is newspaper-free, at least in the traditional sense of the word. But there is no future I can comfortably envision without some means of news coverage and news analysis. Right now, we stand at the crossroads. Newspapers need to evolve faster and embrace change, exploring new avenues of revenue and engagement with their public rather than use technology to bolster what is clearly a business model that's dying on its feet, one which threatens to bring down with it the entire newspaper industry.

David Amerland is the author of the best-selling SEO Help and Online Marketing Help. His latest book, Brilliant SEO has just been released by Prentice Hall. His books are available from Amazon and any good bookshop. He maintains his own blog at www.helpmyseo.com.

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