Future seen in media fusion
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From The Guardian to The Times, once stubborn broadsheets are switching to tabloid formats. But as the global trend towards tabloid papers gathers momentum, the architect of one of the region's more prominent conversions says that the real issue newspapers are facing is a technological one, requiring closer integration of traditional print and multimedia content.
'Readers are people who are smart, technologically savvy but with incredibly short attention spans because of the devices and media that exist around them,' said design guru Mario Garcia, who was in town last week to talk about his new tabloid design for the Wall Street Journal Asia.
'Going compact is very exciting because the readers like it, but the real story here is the fusion of the online and print versions of the newspaper.
'We know that readers read the newspaper, but we also know that they connect several times a day on mobile devices, laptops and in the office.
'Fusion is only now coming to the newsroom, but the fusion has already taken place in the minds of the readers.'
Very few newspapers can genuinely claim to have integrated online and print sections. Many online editions began life as verbatim recreations of print editions, and even when the idea of charging for content caught on, online operations were often developed as separate business units within the organisation. And with separate business units came separate editorial meetings.
One of the global leaders in integrating new media with traditional print publishing, according to industry analyst Andrew Lynch of the INCA-FIEJ Research Association, is the Norwegian daily VG, which gained international recognition for its coverage of the tragic tsunami in Southeast Asia.
VG used news and pictures sent from mobile phones in the affected region in both its online and offline coverage.
Meanwhile, The New York Times announced last month that it would merge its online and offline newsrooms by 2007 in an effort to better exploit the potential of the internet.
The paper's executive editor Bill Keller told The Guardian: 'As long as the two newsrooms are separate, it almost inevitably means the Web is something of an afterthought.'
Mr Garcia said the design for the new Journal was based on the premise that readers now demanded more than one media format for their news.
When it is launched on October 17, the newspaper will direct readers to content that appears only online via selected icons and webpage addresses to features such as full-length interviews, videos and photo essays.
'Newspapers think in terms of print, and online media people are usually younger and only think of digital content,' Mr Garcia said.
'But with fusion, it becomes more about deciding in editorial meetings the best medium to tell a particular story.
'Some stories will lend themselves to a photo gallery, others will be told better through audio or video, and reporters will have to be clued into that.
'The reporters become more like story-tellers than reporters. They will tell the stories in nine paragraphs for the newspaper and then in a multimedia format online,' he added.
Mr Garcia has taken cues for the new Journal from the online or mobile world, right down to the small photos on each page which are precisely the same size as his cellphone screen.
Ideas for future designs include directing readers at the end of an article to other similar news items or features, such as Amazon.com does, or even pointing readers to content outside the company.
'Readers cannot read every piece of information available to them,' he said.
'The internet is a jungle of information. The newspapers that will survive will be great at the concept of 'send me'. At the end of an article on Alan Greenspan you tell the reader he is on the front cover of the current Time magazine. I see in the future bibliographies at the end of every reporter's article.'
What these initiatives have in common is the perception of new media, the internet and mobile connectivity as an opportunity for rather than a threat to newspapers. Often, the emergence of bloggers, podcasters and the internet has been portrayed as heralding the end of traditional print media.
Another issue is that the new media inevitably suggests a lesser standard of journalism.
While the media itself has often reacted against the emergence of bloggers and citizen journalism because their content is not subject to the editorial process, the industry has moved slowly to welcome new media content created by professional journalists.
The issue came into focus recently when commentators asked whether reporting of hurricane Katrina by The Times-Picayune of New Orleans - compiled entirely online and using blog-style entries by newspaper staff - could be eligible for a Pulitzer prize. Pulitzers can be awarded for online content only as part of a wider entry that includes printed material.
Mr Garcia said the debate for one medium or another had been answered in studies showing that 80 per cent of readers and consumers used at least two different media, and switched at short intervals between them.
'There will be survival of every medium, but survival will come by fusing the different mediums and by sending readers from one medium to another,' he said.