Digital Essays: Durrants - Slow death of newspapers

The shift to new media may be gathering pace, but print looks set to continue to play a role for years to come.

The way in which we are consuming and interacting with the media is shifting fundamentally away from print. In September 2006, The Economist heralded the death of the newspaper by claiming that Britons aged between 15 and 24 are spending almost 30 per cent less time reading national newspapers once they start going online.

North America has been hardest hit - the number of people employed by the newspaper industry in that region fell by 18 per cent between 1990 and 2004. According to the journal, 'newspapers have not started to shut down in large numbers yet, but it is only a matter of time'. It predicted: 'Over the next few decades, half the rich world's general papers may fold.'

Figures released earlier this year in the United States would appear to confirm that the trend is continuing. In the six months to May 2007, Sunday newspaper circulation was down 3.1 per cent and daily circulation down 2.1 per cent. This was the fifth report coming out of the US in a row flagging up circulation dips of at least 1.9 per cent or more since late 2004.

The shift is to new forms of media. These are more current, offer more specialised content and are increasingly accessible to consumers on the move. To remain competitive, traditional publishers are having to build additional reach through niche, not mass, circulation. They are also recognising that in the era of the web, old news is simply not news at all. Stories break 24 hours a day in the wired world. Print is having to adapt.

The shift away from paper to new formats - online editions, webcasts, podcasts and blogs - has made the media environment of today almost unrecognisable compared with that of ten years ago.

In 2004, Durrants monitored approximately 2,000 websites and newswires. Today we monitor more than 10,000 online sources and are adding more to the list everyday.

In contrast, our monitoring list for the print media has remained almost static over the same period of time.

The ABC published print circulation and online user data in the same report for the first time in August, confirming the rise in online media. The figures showed that the audience for the web now far outstrips the size of that for print in most cases. Guardian Unlimited sees daily traffic of 771,242, while the circulation of its print title is almost half that figure at 363,562.

Our own internal usage statistics tell of a rather less dramatic shift. Our customers are moving to digital delivery in large numbers. Far more than 50 per cent of our customer base receives its coverage electronically - via email, web, PDA or BlackBerry - and that number is growing fast.

So, are print titles being marginalised? Not entirely. The coverage our customers receive is still largely generated in print. Although there are millions more websites, newswires and blogs, print is still king when it comes to PR coverage.

That is because many consumers still see newspaper websites as a complementary news source rather than a direct replacement for print. While news may break online, the natural home for serious, weighty commentary is in hard copy.

And do not forget that the impact of the web varies dramatically according to sector. For a top ten charity, web and newswire coverage accounts for about one per cent of its coverage in a given month. That figure jumps to 31 per cent for a big-name retailer, 46 per cent for a leading management consultancy and 70 per cent for a maker of games consoles.

There is no doubt that, while print will continue to play a role for years to come, audiences are shifting online and the opportunities to reach them are shifting, too. Monitoring firms are reflecting this shift with the development of online PR platforms that can be used to build campaigns, target journalists and distribute press releases.

What is clear is that when you are building your new media strategy, you need to have an intimate understanding of your target audience and the way in which it interacts with the online environment.

Consumers of technology live in a wired world and instinctively look to online channels for news and views. Others don't, or not yet anyway.

You also need to be sure that you and your organisation are comfortable and confident about interacting in this space. In order to appeal to tech-savvy journalists and consumers, you need to be tech-savvy yourself.

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