Ten years ago, I was at a conference where one of the newspaper industry’s senior statesmen said: “After its moment in the sun, the internet will eventually slip back and take its place alongside other secondary media.”
I sense this was less a prediction than a case of wishing out loud, which as we all know, never works.
With broadband spreading throughout the UK (we have one of the fastest growth rates among the world’s major economies), with 90 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds online, and with online advertising revenues growing at 60 per cent year on year, the internet is currently doing anything but slipping away.
But even these bald facts of usage are simply the start of the challenge that the World Wide Web is posing to newspapers. They, and a host of other statistics, create the imperative for action. Quite simply, if you don’t have a strong online presence, you are going to become increasingly irrelevant to a large proportion of your readers and advertisers.
But what to do? And, more importantly, how to do it? Here the fun starts. It is not just the dramatic growth in usage of the Net we have to take on board, but the fact that this really is – as promised – evolving into a medium unlike any other.
The growth of blogging, wikis, podcasting, search and social software is creating a completely different landscape where the rules of who creates content and how people access it are unlike anything seen in traditional media. In other words, it is not simply a place where you can publish stories more quickly and longer than in print.
All of this makes the organisational challenge for newspapers even greater.
The first wave of online activity was really about letting discrete teams get on with it. If it worked, fantastic. If not, well, it wasn’t really part of the organisation anyway, was it? And indeed, when the dotcom bubble burst, it was all too easy to wield the axe and pretend it had never happened. (Of course, ever since Rupert Murdoch became a digital immigrant, everyone is now pretending the axe wielding never happened, and newspaper executives realise that they have loved the internet all along – but that is another story.)
In this second wave, it is clear that the ultimate challenge is not simply to build a good web operation, but to build the news organisation of the future. And having your online operation as a remote satellite simply isn’t going to do it.
That said, the one thing you realise after looking around is that there is no clear model for making it work that everyone can feel comfortable following.
This is partly because it is still all so relatively new, and partly because the only solution that will work within a particular organisation is the one that fits exactly with the culture, people – and, yes, office space that exists there.
I do predict, however, that the next five to 10 years will bring a wave of change in newspaper offices around the world as they grapple with this.
Sometimes that change will be swift and brutal, in other places it will be gentle and organic.
And this isn’t just change for change’s sake. It is change to make sure that the newsroom of the future can deal with four critical challenges.
The first is the obvious balance in pace and output between continuous deadlines and daily deadlines.
Our smartest decision at the launch of Guardian Unlimited was to commit to breaking news – despite the fact that everyone (including many of us) believed the BBC and the wires would do more of it, and do it better, so we should leave it alone.
True, it’s much more their game than ours, but the online hunger for news is remarkable. And if you fail to satisfy it, you simply lose audience – even your most loyal readers – to someone else.
The question, though, is how far down that line will newspapers want to go? At one end you might have a small team rehashing wire stories from nine to five; at another, some will start to see themselves as 24-hour news operations with a paper that is in effect the best of the web output. Needless to say, most will try to find a comfortable space somewhere in between.
Second is dealing with user-generated content – that handy catch-all phrase that covers a multitude of online activity where our audiences shift from readers to contributors.
Of course, newsrooms have for years dealt with letters, phone calls, emails, pictures and video sent in by readers and viewers. But this is now no longer simply feeding into print offerings, but taking on a life of its own.
For example, we have a travel site, Been There, which is built around recommendations from readers.
Managing this is a very different process from managing a traditional site or section. It brings with it creative, technical and legal challenges – none insurmountable, but enough to scare off many publishers in the first place.
If you speak to those who run Wikipedia (as much as anyone actually ‘runs’ it), or any major community site, you soon realise there is a set of skills and ways of working that are very different from normal editorial practices, but just as critical to success.
We all have plenty to learn in this area, and much to gain in terms of loyalty and relevance if we get it right.
Third is the use of multimedia. Once the current frenzy over podcasting and vodcasting subsides, we will be left with an inevitable truth that audio, video, photo galleries and animated graphics are part of the way that we publish.
The challenges here are increasingly less to do with technology, since it is getting cheaper and easier to use by the week, and more to do with skills and working practices.
The final challenge is the relationship between editorial and technical sides of the operation.
Excellent software development lies at the heart of every great online outfit. And over the next decade, good software developers are likely to be as important, if not more so, to many newspaper organisations, as journalists are.
Successful organisations will find effective ways for traditional editorial and software teams to work together effectively. Again, this is a mix of processes, personalities and decisions of where to put people.
None of this is easy. But it is inevitable. There are plenty of risks involved, but the biggest risk of all is to do nothing, and to hope that it will all simply go away.