Picard optimistic for
newspapers, but warns:
‘Change or risk disaster’

By Emily McCarthy
Bulletin Staff

Although he knows that public perception is that the newspaper industry is dying, Robert G. Picard, an expert on the economics of the news media, expressed optimism about the future of the news business during his keynote speech Saturday, Feb. 20, at the New England Newspaper and Press Association winter convention at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.

Picard, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University and the University of Oxford, discussed the changing state of the newspaper industry and answered audience members’ questions after his presentation. Besides teaching at Harvard and Oxford, Picard is also the North American representative at Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and a specialist in challenges the news media faces in the digital age.

“There is nothing really mysterious about what is happening to the industry,” Picard said. “Everybody is going to have to change or risk disaster in some form.”

Despite his positive outlook, Picard noted numerous problems newspapers face today and will continue to face as audiences evolve — problems that will force newspapers to evolve as well.

“We have to be more aware (that) our audience today will not be our audience in 10 years,” he said.

One way newspapers can combat the shift in audiences is to appeal to young readers now, Picard said. He said millennials will be the primary readers of newspapers and their websites at some point in the near future, and representing them and drawing them in as readers sooner rather than later could prove beneficial.

“There is plenty of evidence young people do read print; they read a lot of print,” Picard said. “They just don’t read newspapers.”

Picard said another prominent issue plaguing newspapers today is that readers primarily consume news via screens rather than paper, but presenting content on a screen is fundamentally different from presenting content in print. Even when newspapers optimize websites for various desktop and mobile displays, the content might not be as effective across all devices. For example, a smartphone might not be the best device for reading a long-form piece, Picard said. That often forces newspapers to decide between designing digital news for mobile or desktop displays, which does not necessarily work best for both.

Digital displays — both desktop and mobile — also restrict readers’ ability to select the order in which they consume news because newspapers often feel the need to present an online “front page” that forces readers to start with specific content. In the past, newspapers would change the order of sections depending on what readers wanted to look at first.

“People do what they want, and we always knew that in newspapers,” Picard said.

Today’s high-choice market forces newspapers to put readers first, he said.

“Now the power is in the hands of the consumers,” he said.

Putting readers first for newspapers to stay competitive among all of the other available sources for news can be a challenge because the newspaper industry is one where people are not necessarily used to innovating or dealing with failure, Picard said.

“The biggest problem in the newspaper industry is we never did any research and development,” he said.

Picard said one effective way for newspapers to reconnect with today’s audiences is to focus on what people are interested in on a personal level.

“More and more people don’t see their lives reflected in the newspaper because we’ve gotten away from the things we used to cover very heavily,” Picard said.

From replacing wire stories in print newspapers with opinion pieces on the same topics to covering clubs and societies in which readers are involved, newspapers can take steps to ensure that readers are able to relate to the content presented, Picard said.

“I would be putting less and less wire copy in my newspapers,” he said. “Save it for online.”

Picard said covering local sports will appeal to readers as well, especially at the youth and high school levels.

“Sports is a large part of people’s entertainment and a large part of people’s social life,” he said. “If you’re not effectively covering local sports in your paper, you’re giving that (audience) up.”

The audience at Robert Picard’s opening keynote speech Saturday, Feb. 20, on ‘Contemporary trends changing the newspaper industry.’

‘Now the power is in the hands of the consumers.’

-- Robert G. Picard

POSTED 3/3/16


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