The Internet keeps slowly chipping away at the uptake of daily newspapers' print editions, the staple of the news business for decades.
In early November, an organization called the Audit Bureau of Circulations, a group dedicated to chronicling true circulation figures for media outlets, released the latest statistics showing that instead of getting news the way they used to get it, from print newspapers, more readers of big daily newspapers are going online.
For the most part, the figures aren't dramatic — a few percentage points. But they reinforce a growing trend. Stories such as this used to be alarming and make the front page. But the piece I'm referring to was buried in the middle of the business section.
True, it was published in one of Canada's biggest newspapers. However, I doubt if most readers even flinched in Toronto, where three of the four mainstream dailies saw their circulation numbers drop.
Interestingly, in smaller cities where people often see their daily newspapers as a community newspaper — that is, as an integral part of the community itself — circulation rose. But overall, people are developing new news and reading grooves, and if their preference is news via the Internet, that's what they'll patronize.
News purists legitimately worry about quality. We've all heard about the Internet boogeyman, the one that scurrilously spreads lies and garbage while veiled as a news source in a non-traditional way, such as a blog. And there's certainly reason to be concerned about that.
But by the same token, there are legitimate and excellent bloggers (including a growing number in agriculture), and a whole generation of urban kids for whom hard-copy newspapers are mostly unfamiliar. They get almost everything else from the Internet. So why wouldn't they get their news there, too?
To me, given the amount of distractions that exist in today's world, young people should be applauded and encouraged for making the effort to read news, rather than being castigated for shunning the print editions of newspapers. In the big picture, the main thing is that the news they get is objective, and that they read it.
Given the statistics, it appears the public is zealous neither about maintaining the long-standing institution of the print media — at least not in big cities — nor about getting rid of it. I believe the public is concerned about nurturing caring, well-rounded citizens.
And that's where the media comes in, providing perspective and balance.
Unfortunately, things are different in many parts of rural Canada, where high-speed Internet access continues to be a sore spot. Rural people are marginalized when it comes to this kind of access. The lack of high-speed networks is keeping new business out of some rural communities. If there's a plan to remedy this, it's proceeding very quietly, with agonizingly little fanfare and at a snail's pace. Rural people are still plodding along with dial-up Internet access. And that's just wrong.
However, for agriculture and agricultural awareness in particular, there's a wee bit of a silver lining in the new circulation trends. If indeed people are gravitating towards online news, it follows that they begin assimilating additional online information. And that's an opportunity for those in a diverse and often complicated field such as agriculture.
Online editions let newspapers stretch out, because there's so much more room to be creative. News reporters or photographers will typically shoot dozens of photos on a news assignment; the Web version of the paper allows many of those photos to be published, instead of the usual one or two that accompany a print story.
Online news expert Ed Cassavoy, a former Guelph Mercury editor who is now a senior news editor at the Toronto Star, says web stories offer the chance to add links to other experts, giving stories even more balance and perspective, or to add sound — such as voice interviews, although agriculture has a wealth of environmental sound, too — and extra graphics.
Additional features, especially extra space, can only help agriculture. Research by people such as Jacob Nielsen show surfers gravitate toward shorter articles, not long ones. But there's a place for longer features. For example, try explaining the Canadian Wheat Board in an average-size print story. Or why grains and oilseed farmers are doing so much better than livestock farmers right now. Or the history of how U.S. agriculture policy has influenced the world's food system. Or why oil-rich Iran depends so much on Canadian food exports.
Readers won't always want an in-depth feature. But if they're inspired to find one, they'll know where to look. There's a place in the news-consuming world for both print and online editions. The most successful publications will use the strengths of both to their advantage.