Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Newspaper culture still blocks move to digital

Gumersindo Lafuente of El Pais (photo by James Breiner
Versión en español aquí.

The culture war of print vs. digital rages on and continues to block the transformation of the newspaper industry. An incident at Spain's most prestigious daily and a study of 38 U.S. newspapers both made this clearer recently.

At El Pais in Spain, the newsroom protested after Gumersindo Lafuente, the head of digital operations, told a journalism conference that a prime consideration when hiring a journalist should be the number of his or her Twitter followers.

It didn't help that Lafuente and his team were imported two years ago from a failed web operation amid layoffs of print journalists, according to the report in

Rejection of digital

A workers committee of El Pais sent a letter to management condemning Lafuente's comment as well as another by Juan Luis Cebrian, president of El Pais's parent company. Cebrian the same week predicted the end of print newspapers.
"Once again, the workers of this newspaper can see that those who are steering this ship are in a hurry to sink it and drown everyone along with them," the letter said.
This kind of cultural conflict is not new to Lafuente and his team. He told me in an interview last year that  many traditional journalists consider digital journalism inferior and refuse to participate in training in digital skills. In a rare defiance of management hires two years ago, 44 percent of the workers committee voted against the appointment of Borja Echevarria, a protege of Lafuente, as the No. 2 person in the digital organization. Only 38 percent who participated in the non-binding vote were in favor with 17 percent of the ballots blank, according to PRnoticias.

In U.S., fear of failure

A quote that best sums up why newspaper management has been so sluggish in responding to digital competition came out in Pew Research's report on 38 U.S. newspapers, “The Search For a New Business Model.” The report quotes a newspaper executive, who was promised anonymity:
The problem, he explained, is the dilemma that faces many trying to innovate inside older industries. If you changed your company and did not succeed, that could hasten the end of the enterprise. "There might be a 90% chance you'll accelerate the decline if you gamble and a 10% chance you might find the new model," he said. "No one is willing to take that chance."
All indications are that newspapers will continue to decline. They have not found a solution to their revenue problem, the report found.

Across operations of different sizes in different types of economic settings, the newspapers studied were, on average, losing print advertising dollars at seven times the rate that they were growing digital ad revenue in the last year for which they had complete data.
The Poynter Institute's Rick Edmonds has a good summary of the cultural divide.


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