FEATURE 

With readers and advertisers off to the web, what will be left on the shelf?

Is the print paper doomed? Judging by the wailing and gnashing of teeth in some print circles, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. Yet the printed newspaper remains hugely popular. Yes, it needs to adapt to changing technologies and markets, but when was that not the case? Peter Sands has a ten point plan mapping out where it needs to go from here.

By Peter Sands

As we all now know, newspapers - or more specifically newsprint - will disappear completely in the first quarter of 2043. Readers and advertisers will have forsaken the cheap inky stuff for sexy portable gadgets that offer immediacy, moving images and quality sound. These devices will give us all we want, whenever we want it - including a global voice.

It all sounds very feasible and exciting to me. I already get my news that way. When the Virgin train flew off the rails in Cumbria late on a Friday evening in February, I watched it develop on my laptop and Blackberry. There was no newspaper, or even television, required.

Who could fail to be enthused by all of this? I get all my music through iTunes, and have rediscovered long-forgotten vinyl tracks; I receive goal-by-goal accounts of every Newcastle United game on my mobile and I marvel at my ten-year-old son's interactive website. When I am on the road I chat to him through MSN.

I particularly enjoy watching newspapers exercising their creative juices on their websites. I regularly look at the Northern Echo's video jokes, listen to its very funny headline game and smile at Peter Barron's Dad At Large column. The Sun's website - with Dear Deidre having been turned from a hot-metal column into a brilliant video storyboard - is a triumph. A tribute site to two youngsters killed in a car crash last summer - organised by the Evening News in Norwich - was community journalism at its best.

With all of this available at the bottom of my garden or at Gatwick airport where I am writing this ... I do not need a newspaper. I still buy several every day, of course, because I am of the generation that never really believes anything is true until I see it in print - a generation that considers a world without newspapers just too grim to contemplate.

Like most journalists, I have read much of the recent crystal-ball gazing about the future of newspapers and the only thing that seems certain is that nobody really knows anything for certain. Will Philip Meyer's 2043 prediction come true? I doubt it ... but like everyone else I don't know for sure.

So what do we know? We know that nearly 500 million people in the world buy a newspaper every day; that newsprint is the second biggest global advertising medium; that sales in many places, even in Western Europe (Ireland, for example), are on the rise. In short, newspapers are not going to disappear in my lifetime. They will, though, inevitably be different. The challenge will be for them to get better and more relevant while dealing with competition from all sides and fewer resources. So here is my contribution to the crystal-ball gazing - a ten-point plan for the printed newspapers, specifically the locals, that find themselves left on the shelves while the rest of the world is completely screen-struck.

1. Kill the filler
Newspapers need to get rid of the flawed notion of high story counts. The newspaper of the future will not be peddling the number of pages, as if quantity is the most important thing it is selling. When readers have information overload, what they do not need from their newspaper is even more volume. The "what's on" shorts and all-too easy handout material, purporting to be news stories, are not going to get people out on a wet Wednesday to buy a paper. If we put this material on our websites, it won't get any hits. So why put it in the newspaper? Reporters, too many of them suffering from recyclitis, who should be out gathering genuine stories are too often spending their valuable time regurgitating material of no value, just so the space gets filled. It will be quality not quantity that counts in future.

2. Banish the black sans caps
It was always a dubious practice for newspapers, particularly weeklies, to copy the 200pt Tempo Bold approach of the Sun and the Mirror. I recently saw a weekly paper splash two decks of Helvetica Black caps across six columns on an inconsequential story that carried the headline "Supermarket car park row". Once newspapers accept that they are not breaking the news in print, what justification can there be for this "shock horror" approach? The Guardian uses a light Egyptian because it accepts that it isn’t ink, but the message that sells newspapers. Local papers should use space given to big headlines more effectively and get their message across better, with classy, understated founts appropriate to the content.

3. No news is good news
If news is broken on our websites, then the newspaper must inevitably reduce the space given over to it. The one mantra that gets played over and over again to assure newspapers their future is secure, is that nobody wants to read a book on the screen. Newspapers need to look at what they can offer that people can’t get elsewhere or don’t want to access digitally. Quality, named columnists, the big read, real and authoritative analysis of local developments, campaigns and investigative reporting all lend themselves much more to print than to the web.

4. Divide and rule
The distinction between features and news will blur, possibly disappear altogether. Instead of bundling crime, weddings, council reports, court cases, traffic accidents, human interest and job losses under a banner called, erroneously, "news" and everything else under a banner called "features", the paper could offer distinctive content sections. For example, section 1 could be a four page summary of the top 20 issues of the day / week all presented in graphic and pictorial form, concentrating on "how" and "why" rather than simply "what". There would be cross-references to the web and other printed sections. Section 2 could be the big reads - the good columnists, the best local writing, the investigations, a little satire and humour. Section 3 could be a forum ... letters, reviews, recommendations, comment, readers’ photographs, quotes - all carefully selected to be of interest. Section 4 could be a people round-up -containing, say 100 local people a day / week, who have done something - been born, got married, died, given a speech, been promoted, reached a milestone, beaten a disease. The list of sections is potentially endless.

5. Seeing is believing
If analysis, summaries and insight are our future, then graphics and visual journalism must play a critical role. Newspapers will need to build a reputation for being visual, often telling the story in pictures rather than words. Here’s an example: Planning applications are regularly listed in newspaper research as being of interest. Most local newspapers recognise this by either giving long lists of "people with a plan" or using planning applications as fillers, dotted around the paper with 24pt headlines. As a service this is less than useless. On the other hand, a graphic showing all the active planning applications in a two-mile radius of my house, with brief details on each and a guide to where I can find out more, would be genuinely useful.

6. Show me the way
Resources will not allow the printed local paper to remain a paper of record and restricted space should not be wasted on information that can be obtained easily elsewhere. For example, the paper should abandon the idea of comprehensive listings (not that many ever did them properly anyway). These are out of date before the paper is published. The paper should be the trusted friend - making recommendations on what you should be seeing and doing this week and why. If you want the full listings, they are on the web, where space is endless, and updated 24 hours a day.

7. Looking good
.... like a quality magazine. Some newspapers will certainly become the poor relations if, in the digital world, they continue to pay lip service to design. The rounded corners, naff clip art, poor spacing, flat and badly cropped pictures, muddy colours, clumsy headlines and awkward typography will become less forgivable. That goes for the quality of the paper and print too. I recently saw a local newspaper what’s on guide with barely an advert in it. A similar guide in the same patch printed as a monthly A5 guide on glossy paper was brimming with them. Advertisers want response and they have a far better chance if newspapers can offer them quality and longevity.

8. Busted deadlines
One of the most archaic things about newspapers is that they are published according to pre-determined print schedules - and not when something happens. Maybe the newspaper of the future needs to break out of its straitjacket and be better equipped to respond to events. And if news is to play less of a role, then maybe the distinction between daily and weekly papers will disappear and newspapers will publish when they have something to offer, rather than to a fixed timetable.

9. Theme
Local newspaper editors know that it isn’t news that sells their papers ... but information. Biggest selling day? Jobs. Second biggest selling day? Property. Perhaps in future each publication will be based around a theme - an edition for when the schools break up, when the kids football season starts, when there is a murder. The regulars - the summary of the main issues of the day, the big reads, the people page, the puzzles - would all remain, but the cover and a major chunk of the paper would be dedicated to one local issue or event. Such an approach would give advertisers a clearer platform and readers genuine detail.

10. The best things in life ...
What do the Manchester Evening News, Metro, London Lite, the London Paper and many of Archant’s weekly titles have in common? News isn’t free of course, but there is a wide perception among our readers that it is. If we are to deliver a substantial audience to advertisers, then the free option looks increasingly inevitable. The future will probably be a mix of free and paid-fors in the same stable. Some niche publications may carry a charge, some may not, depending on what the market will bear.

So there you have it. The crystal ball clearly sees themed, free, sectioned, magazine-like publications offering summaries of local issues in graphic form, advice on going out, a voice to readers, a big read, great columnists, humour with at least 100 local people featured per issue – and always available when the time is right. So let’s get to it. Two final thoughts. First, newspapers are a fantastic medium and a highly profitable businesses that will be around for generations to come. Those who ought to know better should stop beating them up and talking them down. Second, don’t forget the crossword. It’s far more satisfying when you complete it on paper than it is on screen.