"Newspapers are dead but it will take a while for the body to cool down."

It's unofficially official: news print is dead. Behind closed doors, web editors are united in their predictions of doom.

These particular closed doors were at Cambridge-MIT Institute's digital technologies project last Friday, where the big guns of British and US media were discussing the future of online news.

All the editors and publishers were speaking under the Chatham House Rule, which means their quotes can't be attributed. But the consensus was clear: newspapers are dying and dragging their news sites down with them.

In the US, newspaper sales have stayed at the same level for 20 years - even though the population has increased by 25 per cent. Web audiences have boomed but newspaper sites have struggled to keep up.

So why are they falling behind? Doesn't the internet present an enormous opportunity for the future of the newspaper industry? An inexpensive, global publishing platform with unprecedented potential for multimedia publishing and customisation?

The real handicap, one delegate confessed, is starting with a traditional newspaper model and trying to adapt it for the web. The most successful websites - most notably Google - started from scratch and developed innovative, technologically-sophisticated products for the unique demands of the web environment.

Wrapping the cast iron model of a 200-year-old newspaper around the amorphous chaos of the internet is seemingly impossible. And although the online industry is now more than 10 years old, the pace of change has simply been too rapid for newspapers.

Newspaper websites face enormous challenges from citizen journalism, rapid changes in online trends and technologies, fragmented audiences and lack of revenue sources. On top of that they often have to lock horns with management teams that are unwilling or unable to understand the internet environment.

The resistance to change 'borders on pathological', according to one news rep. The news industry is in 'profound denial' about the crisis. Another admitted the industry is completely out of touch with consumer expectations of online news.

To make things worse, the industry's executives still don't understand what the web is for: "So it doesn't make money, and it's not a back up for the newspaper?"

Short term, the plan for newspaper websites seems to be to enjoy the boom in online advertising for as long as it lasts. Experimenting with new print formats - a strong trend among UK newspapers - is an attempt to wring as much value for as long as possible from the print edition. And exploiting the blogging wave could also help by providing a low-cost source of information - if news sites can embrace the phenomenon before it starts to erode their businesses.

"No other media was ever so well suited to our business of journalism."

"That's why I think it has been so successful over the past 10 years and will be in the next 10 years."

UK publisher on internet news

Editors predict that by 2015, most site traffic will be generated by syndicated news content rather than random surfers. To remain competitive, sites will have to provide versatile news for a wide variety of platforms. Web users will continue to filter news content through their own beliefs and prejudices, customising their news package using favourite sites and sources.

But while newspaper sites are chained to antiquated publishing models they will struggle to innovate and will not be able to thrive online.

One web editor described the website as a life raft for the newspaper - a powerful metaphor for the state of online news.

Newspaper sites could drown quietly and sink without trace. But they might be washed up on a desert island and survive by being adventurous and innovative - an exciting prospect for the next era of news publishing.

More news from dotJournalism:
Stick with ink and sink
Soaring web use blots the Sun
Web is vital for new BBC audiences
Micro-pubs: a model for the future
Editors to consider the future of news

Comment? Email me.



From Nick Robinson, 10:01 11 March 2005

In 1980 I read a quote in Press Gazette from an American publisher who predicted that newspapers 'would be dead in 10 years'. The expectancy then was that newspapers would be faxed into the home. He was wrong, of course, and newspapers survive, albeit with permanently declining circulations - the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday excepted.

If they're going to survive long-term though they're going to have to evolve, which means that editors would have to make changes, big changes. And who knows an editor who's got a greater attention span than a gnat, or can think about anything other than the next deadline?

From Luz Helguero, 07:57 11 March 2005

Media in developing countries

Hi Jemina, I read your comments about the future of the print media. What happens wih the online media in places where the internet is just for the elites, and the population can't afford to pay the costs of internet connections? I live in Peru, and I run a newspaper 90 years old: eltiempo.com.pe.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).