As I write this, the disaster in Japan continues.

In Australia, we’ve seen a string of natural catastrophes of late. Foods, fires and a cyclone devastated much of Australia this year. A tragic earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, followed. And now the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis hits Japan.

When I woke up this morning I looked to my smart phone for the latest update. And, like millions of others, I opened a newspaper application to get the details. I got a quick update on Japan, the local weather and the latest information on our upcoming election.

When I arrived at work I opened my computer and again chose a newspaper Web site for a further, and more detailed update. I watched video of water being poured into the nuclear reactors and clicked around a fascinating interactive graphic explaining what was happening deep inside those reactors. I had a break at lunch and was able to indulge myself by reading our national newspaper, paying particular attention to Prince William’s visit to New Zealand.

Tonight, I fully expect to spend some time reading the newspaper on my iPad, which I find quite relaxing while being informative and entertaining.

Am I a typical Australian? Of course not! I work for a media company. But my behaviour is typical of the way people have come to use newspapers in two ways.

First, it is clear from circulation and digital metrics that people continue to turn to newspapers as a credible and trusted source for important news. So, yes, in times of disaster we look to newspapers for the news and to help us understand it.

And in recent years newspapers have gone further. They let us listen to those involved and read and watch their first-hand reports. Newspapers provide a platform for us to speak with one another, to get information, ask questions or share our opinions. And “important” news isn’t just those monumental events. People say that sport, gossip and entertainment are important as well.

Second, my behaviour is typical in that I interact with newspapers on many different platforms. Ethnographic research News Ltd. conducted last year was enlightening in this regard. We asked people who were reading newspaper Web sites or using newspaper applications what they were doing. Their answer came without hesitation: “I’m reading the newspaper.” So, whilst the experience and the context of those experiences are quite different, people still see them as “reading the newspaper.”

What are the implications for us?

We can’t ignore the important role that newspapers play in people’s lives. Our audiences rely on us to provide credible reports on things that matter. That is a weighty responsibility and an enviable position to hold. But it is easy to forget as we focus on increasing a circulation number or selling more advertising. That position underpins our strength.

We must keep up with our audiences in how we describe our business. I know I have often concentrated on the “paper” part of newspaper and wondered what the future holds for the product. It appears that our readers are more progressive in their view, seeing newspapers not as a product printed on paper, but as a service that keeps them informed, entertained and engaged regardless of the format. That is quite liberating for marketers and is in striking contradiction to the prevailing “wisdom” that newspapers businesses are doomed.