2011: a Newspaper Odyssey

Few days ago I was giving a lecture about web 2.0 and the blogsphere at «Il Messaggero», the most popular daily newspaper in Rome, founded in 1878. At the end of the presentation, one of the journalists who participated to the course asked me: «What will happen to newspapers because of blogs and the web?». His fear was that they had no chances, that is, that they may disappear as dinosaurs did, because of the huge amount of information continuosly generated and shared into the web.

Of course, there is not an answer, or if you prefer, there are several opinions, but nobody can say by sure which will be the scenario in the next ten years. Anyway I decided to write this article to share my point of view. It is just my personal opinion, based on my understanding of web 2.0 in general, and blogsphere in particular. Of course, it could be wrong: up to you to pass judgement on.

What is a newspaper?

First of all we have to define what is a newspaper. As a matter of fact a newspaper is made of different components and can be viewed by different perspectives.

What we usually see is the final product, that is, the printed paper sheets. From the point of view of the consumer, in fact, a newspaper is a channel of information, a way to get informed of what is happening in his/her town, region, country, world, as well as a place where he/she can find opinions and reviews about facts, events, books, movies, shows, and so forth.

However, a newspaper is also a place where such a product is generated. Journalists collect pieces of information and write articles; columnists voice their opinions about what happened or what may happen in future; criticists reviews books, movies, and other shows; photographers provides images of mostly everything; printing and engraving experts define the layout and the graphics of pages; the members of the editorial staff review and correct articles, take decisions about title and position of each piece of text, compose the whole work. All those people contribute by different competencies to produce the final object, and sometimes they have different and in some case contrasting opinions about the result to be delivered. The newspaper is often the result of debates, conflicts, agreements, in one word, teamwork.

But a newspaper is also defined according to a line of publishing. The owner of the newspaper often decides what and how has to be published. This is true in many countries, even if the influence of the owner on the final product may vary depending on country, cultural factors, and even law. Sometimes the publishing strategies and styles are related to interests of lobbies, political parties, economical and political pressure groups.

So, when we wonder which might be the future of newspapers in the Internet age, we really have to ask ourselves «which future for which newspaper?»

The future of newspapers

One of the characteristics of web 2.0 is that, until now, nobody really controls it. So, it is very difficult for a pressure group to orient the web. On the other hand, it is not so difficult to take advantage of the traditional techniques of misinformation to infect the web to obtain a specific reaction from people and drive the public opinion. People today trust web as well as my grandmother trusted the tube: «If it was shown on television, it must be true!» The web is an amplifier: just launch a seed inside, and a sequoia will soon grow.

Of course there are influencers, opinion leaders, but how can you really rely on them? Hard to say. So, whatever will occur to the news on paper, journalists will always exist. We need people to rely on, people for whom to inform the public opinion is a profession, with strong ethics. Bloggers are a new role on the information scene, but they are not journalists, usually.

But what about the other roles? What about the editorial staff, the printing and engraving experts? It is very probable that the newspaper intended as a well-defined and organized layout containing selected articles, will disappear. The mechanism of feeds is accustoming users to create their own reader’s digest, their own selection, rather than relying on pre-defined ones. So, even if hubs and aggregators are still a good point of reference for readers —, in fact, they play a role similar to the one of modern newspapers — the web is a huge collection of sources of information that each one uses in a different way.

It is just like you could build your own paper by selecting an article from «The Washington Post», two from «The Daily Telegraph», one from «Le Monde», one from «Der Spiegel», two from «La Stampa», and one from «El País». The reasons because someone select a specific article may vary person by person, but the article’s author is probably one of the most important. That is why journalists are so important. But all the other roles may disappear. The newspaper itself might become an aggregator of articles, but as any aggregator in the web, you have not the necessity to really use it. You can simply customize your feeds reader and that’s all.

So what about the paper? Well, reading an article on a screen is not always appreciated. The white paper suits very well the way the human eye is made: the angle of view, the fact that light is diffused, the size itself of paper, are absolutely important. So, even in the era of digital ink, paper sheets and printed texts may still survive. Even if digital paper has been already invented, it is not yet so popular.

A possible scenario

So, let us give a quick look at future. Joan switches on her laptop and goes to his newspaper builder tool. By using its interface, she selects a series of feeds corresponding to articles from various sources, most related to theatre and musicals. She is also interested to some events in a couple of virtual worlds and to interviews to her favorite actor, Robin Williams. She save her deafult profile as well as a variant to be used only on Sunday, which contains also some article about her favorite sport, soccer.

The day after she goes to work. As usually, she takes the subway line D3. At the Three Lions’ tube station, she uses her prepaid card to print on demand her custom newspaper, so she will have something to read during the trip. In fact, Joan’s Newspaper can be provided in different ways: printed, to be read on paper, wired to an e-book reader, or simply available on the web by using a traditional browser. Reading on the web is free, the upload to the e-book costs just 10 cents, whereas the price of printed version of newspaper may fluctuate from 50 cents to 2 US dollars depending on number of pages.

Is this really the future? I do not know, but I suspect that in future people will wish more and more to mix professional and non-professional sources of information to create their own customized selection of articles, aggregating feeds related to articles of either jounalists and bloggers. The newspaper of the future will be named by your own name: «John Smith’s Post», «La Voce di Maria Rossi», «La Opinión de Juanita Perez», «Le Observateur du Claude Bellamont». An you will be able to share your own newspaper with friends, and maybe become a real publisher.

Is that just science fiction? Probably, but we will not have to wait for long. The future is tomorrow.

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