Information in Transition

Weekend mornings in Chicago ten years ago were almost ritualistic for my information habits.  As on weekdays, I was up early and grabbed the Chicago Tribune from the front porch, brewed some fresh coffee, and sat down to go through the print behemoth.  Once all the news was digested, all the serendipity enjoyed, and the crossword completed, I could get on with the rest of my day.

Newspapers have changed since then.  I was reminded of that when I got up last weekend and had a free National Post outside my door.  I haven’t subscribed to a print newspaper in many years.  It gave me a bit of a thrill to have that moment of expectation about what I might come across in the Weekend Post.

What a disappointment.  Despite being a national paper, it was exceptionally thin on news.  Or news that I hadn’t already come across on the Web.  Out of 5 sections in yesterday’s paper (my selection for a free Friday and Saturday copy apparently continued through yesterday), three were irrelevant to both the news I seek out AND the news sources that expand my own knowledge.  It was the massive automotive and sports sections, combined with the useless movie reviews and entertainment content that really struck me.  If I was a paying subscriber to this content, 60% of the paper (and well over that, based on page count) would focus on topics about which I had no interest.

Describing something as a national paper in Canada is a bit misleading.  These 2010 circulation statistics show 142,000 paid weekend subscribers for the National Post.  Even the Globe and Mail, with the highest paid circulation rate of any Canadian paper, hits only 373,000 on the weekend.

I had never heard of the Newspaper Audience Databank before, which has done research to show Canadians love their newspapers, and that readership is in the 70-80% range for adults.    This is probably pretty accurate, even though the NAD is a group hug of newspapers and advertising businesses.  It’s interesting to see their graphs showing the free dailies eating a huge piece of the pie, though.  Perhaps readership is strong but only because it’s given away.

Another drawback is that Canadian news, like the CBC’s Web site and radio programming and newspapers like National Post, localize some of their content but only to the point of focusing on Toronto.  This means that checking the CBC Web site for local news doesn’t provide anything truly local, unless you live in their 5 pre-defined Ontario regions (Ottawa, Toronto, Windsor, Sudbury, and Thunder Bay).  If you look at an Ontario map to locate those 4 areas, you’ll find they ar quite significantly distributed.

The CBC is so irrelevant to me that I stream the U.S. National Public Radio over the Web for high quality news rather than wasting time with the poor content on the CBC site.  As I flipped through the National Post, a good chunk of the front, main news section was given over to Toronto as well, cutting that useful 40% of content down even further, since I live nearly an hour north.

When I took the dog for his morning walk today, I noticed that we didn’t have a complimentary paper this morning.  No big deal, I had run out of craft projects after making papier mache masks with last week’s freebies.  But it reminded me of the one of reasons we cancelled our last paper, nearly 7 years ago.  The value of the content of a newspaper – selected, focused, well-written content on topics that I know will be there and also the serendipitous ones that will bubble up – is most useful to me in the morning, before I get on my train.  If that paper isn’t sitting on my porch (or within the vicinity of my house, I’m not that fussy, although the standards of the drive-by delivery people has fallen from when I delivered papers on a bicycle) until after I leave, it might as well not come at all.

It was good to have these reminders about the transition newspapers are in.  They have dropping paid circulation and are trying to grow new subscriptions with their old delivery and content methods.  At the same time, they are pumping out free dailies that are low in content, high in ads and are meant to be disposable.  Their Web sites provide a wide range of content, some unique to the Web, some not.  I am done with print newspapers, because they don’t provide me the information I need, when I need it, as reliably as electronic sources.

That same sort of transition is going on in libraries, which is the whole reason this contemplation of newspapers came about.  Our paid subscribers, if you will, are dropping, with foot traffic diminishing for the traditional content we provided.  At the same time, we are growing the free resources (wireless networks and Internet-enabled PCs) to get people in the door and at least aware of our brand, even if they aren’t using anything other than the library’s electricity and physical space.  Our Web sites are highly developed (and often not that well designed) gateways to the paid databases, metadata, and other rich content that libraries pay for on behalf of their members.

The transition is painful.  I worry about newspapers because the majority of content they create is reliable and, as described in Blur, content generated in the wild of the Web (even this post you’re reading) requires a great deal more validation and skepticism.  Newspapers shedding reporters is a bit like libraries shedding librarians.  It doesn’t mean information won’t be available, whether it means an increase in syndicated un-original content or more self-help resources.

The new model just isn’t clear yet.  I’ve been following the paywall discussions, particularly the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette‘s success over the years (also a former favorite paper of mine), as well as the focus on localizing.  Libraries are almost forced into the localized model because of our over-reliance on physical space for content delivery but our content delivery relies on forced subscribership.  Taxpayers, students, and other captured groups pay for the opportunity to use information selected for them by professionals.

Some libraries have been hearing much the same thing that newspapers have: you have large collections and a lot of content, but it’s not relevant to me.  It’s old and out of date, it’s too broad, it’s too narrow, it’s unavailable because it’s so popular.  Libraries do their best to manage these issues by moving to models that shift selection closer to consumption, with print-on-demand, e-book and downloadable audio, and increasing reliance on databases that are remotely updated.

The library isn’t part of our daily lives, just like the newspaper no longer is.  Like the free copies of the National Post I’ve just seen, the public library is becoming something of a special event in our lives rather than a regular focus.  We still check out books – in the hundreds per year – but it’s a binge process, where we pick up 25 or more books one weekend day (because the library isn’t open at other times convenient to us) and return it 2 or 3 weeks later.  As we shift more and more to downloadable media rather than in-library media, the role of the physical aspects of our public library will continue to diminish.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.