Dare to be different

The recent devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan highlighted a critical challenge for newspaper editors: how to strike a balance between saturation coverage and the need to be different.

It’s a hard call in the immediate aftermath of something as enormous as this but the issue becomes more pertinent in ensuing days particularly with print competing against continuous electronic media updates, specifically on television.

It is not surprising that reader and viewer attention is captivated by the impact of such major calamities.

But the increasingly common decision by TV network editors to abandon normal programming for continuous coverage – sometimes over several days – may well be turning people off, particularly when much of the footage, including interviews, is being carouselled.

Newspaper response seems to display an editorial judgment that more is better (and possibly safer). Hence, the papers compete for attention with bigger and bigger sections covering these issues.

Of course, this approach is not unique to calamities. Take for example the annual coverage of the national budgets. The dailies strive to out-do each other by boasting  more  details, more stories,  more comments and opinions and of course more pages than their competitors.

Is this what the reader really wants, or is it a run down on the key issues in the Budget and their impact on their day-to-day existence?

Politics, they say, is more about perception than reality.

And there seems to be a growing community perception that news has become a casualty in the rising tide of comment and opinion in our media outlets.

While this is a criticism of newspapers, it is not confined to print and can be seen in the way “news” is delivered on the television networks, including the ABC.

Long gone are the days when a by-line was a prized reward for a story – often preserved for scoops or major interpretive pieces.

Today, everyone gets a by-line no matter what the size or importance of the story and more often than not it is accompanied by a colour pic of the author.

And all of this is supported by a seemingly endless parade of contributing experts delivering their own, highly profiled, views on major events.

Meanwhile, the traditional definition of news is becoming even more blurred as we find television breakfast show presenters, who are not even journalists, flying in to deliver their programs from catastrophes including  mining disasters, and flood and earthquake  ravaged cities.

The eternal problem for print is that it is finite.

Once a newspaper is published, that is it.

The concept of a 24-hour newspaper died at birth assisted initially by the growth of the internet that extended from PCs to laptops to phones.

To survive, print has to be part of this. So far the electronic media has continued to draw heavily on the traditional print editorial pool to bolster its coverage of issues.

In other words you are more likely to hear or see a newspaper journalist on TV or radio than to see an electronic media journalist interviewed in a newspaper.

But does this reflect readership and circulation trends, or is it more a matter of convention?

Whatever the case, the print media will continue to come under growing pressure from alternative sources of information and from the increasing challenge, particularly from the younger market, to the relevance of traditional content.

It may well come to pass that what is going to  rapidly confront newspapers is not just  the challenge to dare to be different, but how long can they afford not to be different and  from each other.

Malcolm Colless is a former senior executive at News Ltd and writes a column for The Australian’s media section.

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