Could newspapers outlive the Web?


Mobile analytics company Flurry released new data in April that suggests our love affair with the Web might soon be over. They report the amount of time users spend in mobile Web is shrinking and now accounts for a measly 14%. 

So with mobile-phone audiences about to overtake personal-computer (PC) audiences, and with apps playing such a pivotal role on the mobile platform, do users have any time left for Web sites?

Generally designed with desktop-access in mind, the basic interaction model of Web sites hasn’t really changed much. One Web page with a bunch of links takes you to other Web pages. The starting point is, more often than not, that little Google search box.

The form factor of newspapers has also, largely, stayed the same — although for the last few centuries, rather than decades. Ink on paper is delivered in optimal typographical conditions; tracking and kerning is tweaked to keep the reader’s attention.

Expert placement of columns, hierarchy, and contrast draw the reader’s eye around the page and pull them into each story. White space allows the editor to create a sense of flow, a sense of narrative, and, when required, a sense of urgency.

Publishers added color, changed typefaces, and modified the physical dimensions of the newspaper product. But to the “average Joe” reader, newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia’s oldest continuously published newspaper), have changed very little in 200 years.

Not too long ago, we had high hopes for the desktop PC. We assumed it would become the centerpiece of our digital home. We wanted it to store all of our music, record all of our television, keep us informed with news, and keep a watchful eye on our home security.

But instead of being the centerpiece, it’s now in danger of becoming a white plastic box in the corner of the room, gathering dust and used so infrequently that, in five years, when the PC purchase cycle comes around again, we might decide not to bother replacing it.

If tablets start to cannibalise the market share of PCs at work as they are doing with PCs at home, then the enterprise PC could go the way of the fax machine: Every business will have one, but no one will ever use it.

Mobile natives often find Web sites clunky and difficult to use, because the primary user input was originally based around the use of a keyboard and mouse and because the smaller screen is too often abused by designers, who either put too much content on display or assume the user wants a limited content experience.

Web sites rarely leverage the mobility aspect of mobile and so risk becoming less relevant to the reader.

In a multi-screen word less dominated by the PC, Web sites will need to change and find a new role if they are to survive.

Many news publishers are searching for that answer and rebuilding their Web sites to be adaptive: The basic layout stretches and contracts to provide the optimal visual layout, regardless of the screen that the reader is using.

They’re losing the clutter they have built up by years of stakeholder approval chains; rethinking what an article page is; experimenting with different page lengths; and copying design conventions from apps.

We are seeing the atomisation of content and the idea that your brand can exist, not in a Website or an app, but in the ecosystem of others such as YouTube, Google Now, or Vine. We are seeing lots of experimentation from publishers who are trying to answer the question: What is the role of my Web site and what is the role of my app?

Is this the beginning of the end for Web sites as we know them? Or even the beginning of the end for Web sites altogether?

To those of us without ink in our veins, the lack of product change in newspapers might seem like a missed opportunity and a lack of product vision. But the truth is newspapers haven’t changed much because they are so damn good at telling engaging stories. Newspapers haven’t changed much because they are optimised correctly for jobs such as weekend content consumption.

More importantly, newspapers didn’t change much over the centuries because readers didn’t want them to change. They liked the experience just the way it was.

So while the economics of newspaper publishing will undoubtedly mean there will be fewer titles in the future, newspapers still work really well at commanding reader attention and at telling engaging stories. They still work really well for particular types of brand advertisements. So, at this rate, newspapers could well outlive Web sites.

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