We’re all doooooooomed….

In the media section of the Observer online last Sunday, journalist and media commentator Peter Preston declared written journalism is doomed.

But Preston wasn’t simply echoing the age-old ‘no one will buy newspapers in five years’ (which has been banded about for at least the last ten).

Oh no. He was going much further than that. Preston was claiming that it was impossible for their online outlets to survive too, because as high-speed broadband and apple aps advance enabling HD video to be viewed everywhere, written  journalism would become obsolete.

The end is nigh....

Preston declares BBC, ITN, Sky and other broadcast channels will “leave behind newspaper sites, where words have to matter more than video because words are the staple product.”  He adds: “The moment mass media internet news becomes a fundamentally visual medium is the moment that Fleet Street’s print-bound competitors scratch their heads.”

It’s a pretty sensational claim. While the death of newspapers is a familiar debate among  journalists and journalism academics alike, it is a commonly held belief that written journalism itself would survive online in some form. To predict the decline of written journalism in its entirity is pretty bold and for me, quite dreadful.

But there is one fundamental flaw to Preston’s argument. He assumes that just because advances in technology will need a greater amount of video to fill online formats and “huge 42 inch home computer screens” that audiences will automatically only want to watch video. This is simplistic. His claim doesn’t take in to account that maybe, just perhaps, there is a large audience out there who like reading news rather than watching it.

Yes BBC Online attracts a huge audience,  but how many of that audience with fast enough broadband connections still choose to read a story rather than watching the accompanying video? And if BBC and the broadcast outlets abandon their written content in favour of more video journalism, whats to say that their audience won’t abandon them in favour of websites which still embrace the written word.

What Preston fails to consider is that just because new technology would favour a certain form of content, it doesn’t automatically follow that the audience will embrace that content over another. Take the Apple/Microsoft ongoing office saga. Apple’s office software is arguably better than Microsoft Office. And certainly it works better on Apple computers. Then why do millions of Apple users still buy Microsoft software for their computers? Perhaps it would render it too difficult to send documents to the rest of the world. Or maybe, they just bleedin’ like using it.

And let’s be honest, it’s not like Media dooms-dayers haven’t predicted the collapse of the written word before. With the advent of radio and again with television  there was a flurry of comment that newspapers would cease to exist  and that books may even become obsolete. The written word would as a medium would be insignificant. And here we are, decades later, and the written word is going strong.

But in order to establish the popularity of written journalism in a time when newspapers are in decline some serious questions do need to be considered. What are the habits of online news audiences? How much video do they watch in comparison to reading news articles even when using a traditional broadcast website? Are reading/viewing habits vastly different for those visiting the website of a newspaper where video is also readily available? And crucially, do people enjoy reading their news?

 These are pretty interesting research questions, which could be answered by carrying out audience surveys.

David Weaver has used surveys in a number of research projects as a way of establishing the habits and political convictions of journalists, and his use of surveys could quite easily translate to establishing the habits of the journalism audience.

Weaver (2008) identifies that the strengths of audience surveys is that they can should be the method of choice for researchers who want to estimate “the characteristics or attitudes of a large group…such as various demographics (age, gender, education, income), and or political leanings or attitudes about various issues.” Audience surveys also permit the gathering of information about a number of related issues in a short amount of time and with limited cost. 

But surveys are not without their limitations. Weaver states that people tend to answer surveys in socially desirable ways, and thus surveys are stronger for assessing basic characteristics and opinions than for measuring behaviour. So while surveys may work in establishing people’s opinions on written news –  and whether they think it is essential in this age of multimedia journalism – they may work less well in terms of measuring how much news they read online versus how much they watch online.

While there has been some research in to how journalists operate in the multimedia age, there has been little in to how audiences consume multimedia content. I think this research is pretty essential. Audience surveys might be a good and quick way of establishing preferences and habits for news consumption in this rapidly changing age. And certainly some research in to the audience is needed to establish whether a huge shift to video journalism at the expense of words would be something that the public would embrace.

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