Thursday, April 11, 2013

MOBILE: THE NEW PROPHECY NEWSPAPERS CAN'T AFFORD TO IGNORE

Thirty-seven years ago, the dons of the newspaper industry ignored and even ridiculed Courier Journal and Louisville Times Publisher Barry Bingham Jr. when he delivered a prophecy in which he predicted that within 10 years newspapers would be delivered electronically.

I guess you might say that as it turned out Bingham was wrong, at least about the timing, since the electronic delivery that we are all very familiar with today did not come in any serious form until nearly two decades after he was among the first to recognize where the industry was -- or should have been -- headed.

But, was he in fact wrong? I say no. He just did not, at first, anticipate several factors that slowed the process. First, the Internet, as we know it today, took a little longer to grow and develop than he anticipated. Second, it took a little longer than he expected for the means of receiving the electronic newspaper -- the home computer -- to catch on and its price to modify sufficiently to a point where it was affordable for the average American family. In full fairness to Bingham, within two years of his original prediction, he altered the time stamp, saying that the electronic newspaper was, instead, 15 year in the future. However, even with that newspapers continued in their fat, sassy and almost obscenely profitable way to ignore what a growing number of business executives in other industries were beginning to see as the inevitable Internet revolution that really built up a head of steam with the establishment in 1985 of AOL and its rapid growth in popularity as a home service provider.

There were some early Internet experiments by newspapers -- like StarText, a paid content model that was in operation at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram when I joined the staff there as business editor in 1982 -- but most languished and died before the home computer boom began in earnest in the 1990s.

Finally, in the mid-1990s, newspapers figured they'd better get on board with what was happening and most began establishing websites as stepchildren of their news operations, with little thought being given to the revenue generation possibilities of the Internet or the idea that just maybe the information explosion it was generating might jeopardize the position of newspapers as a primary source of news. Despite trends that were steadily growing more obvious, the primary focus of newspapers remained on their print product, with little serious strategic planning being done to take advantage of the possibilities the Internet provided.

Then -- and it seemed as if it happened almost overnight -- the panic set in. Suddenly, after years of complacency, we found ourselves playing catch up and some how most papers came to the conclusion that the best thing they could do to rapidly gain ground was to start giving away for free the content they were still trying to sell with their print product.

That was then, but this is now. A new opportunity is at hand and its name is MOBILE and the newspaper industry can't afford to be behind the curve when it comes to moving rapidly to take advantage of the possibilities it presents.

We already know that more and more people every day are turning to the growing variety of smart phones and tablet computers to get their news and information on the go. But is the newspaper industry, stigmatized by plummeting print circulation, dropping advertising revenue and declining profits really ready to make the investment it will take to move into the world of mobile in a big way or will it ignore mobile's prophets like Steve Buttry of Digital First Media and Cory Bergman, general manage of NBC News Digital's Breaking News?

Bergman on Wednesday had an extremely interesting post on the Poynter Institutes website headlined: "5 reasons mobile will disrupt journalism like the Internet did a decade ago." If you haven't read it, you should and here is the link: http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/media-lab/mobile-media/204107/5-reasons-mobile-will-disrupt-journalism-like-the-internet-did-a-decade-ago/.

Frankly, I believe that Bergman's article should be a call to action for every newspaper in the United States. If what he says is true, and I firmly believe it is, our industry cannot afford to ignore the new prophets of mobile the way it did Barry Bingham Jr. in 1976.

                                                          -30-

Your comments are welcome.