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Will tomorrow’s newspapers no longer be on paper?

The web strikes again, and this time its victim is the media. With the rapid growth of the Internet worldwide – from 2000 until 2008, Internet use world-wide soared by 305% – the print media are suffering. Easy to access and free of charge, the Internet seems to be everywhere and fewer people are willing to pay for the printed word.

The decrease in sold copies doesn’t mean no one is reading. In fact, readership figures are surging; it’s just that most of those readers prefer the web, and the newspapers are struggling to survive. Nevertheless, the industry is finding ways to adapt, ways in which these changes may, in the end, be beneficial.

“The web and the economic crisis have made this a very difficult time for the newspapers” Fiona Spruill, editor of the The New York Times Web newsroom told The Vienna Review at a recent media conference “Covering ‘Resident’ Immigrants Who Stayed in ‘Our’ Countries” in Vienna. The pressures have translated into massive layoffs: In October, Time Inc., parent of Time magazine, Fortune, People and Sports Illustrated, announced it was cutting 600 jobs, and the Gannett Newspaper chain 3,000.

The shift to news on the net is largely a matter of “convenience” according to a 2005 report from the online portal InfoZine citing portability, free access, breaking news, 24-hour availability, search capability and environmental friendliness.

However, the trend is not universal and regions like Eastern Europe report much lower Internet penetration. In Serbia, for example, only 15% of the population has Internet access. Therefore, while online news might be a threat in the future, so far the effect is minimal, said Radomir Licina, senior editor and member of the board of the independent political daily in Serbia, Danas.

“The polls did not rise when expected,” Licina remembers, however he sees the internet version of his paper as a positive addition because “65-70% of citizens with high education have left the country, so for them it is easier to access the online version of Danas.”

In Austria, 71.2% of the Internet users go online for news and politics, according to the Austrian Internet survey Österreichische Webanalyse (OWA).

“Young people read online; so the newspapers have problems. We have to try to get young people to start reading news on paper as they get older,” said Anneliese Rohrer, leading Austrian political pundit and columnist for the daily Kurier. Although publishers are aware of the threat the Internet presents, in Austria there have been no layoffs yet. She also sees the online versions of the newspapers as an opportunity, however. Online, there is room for entire interviews, and longer versions of stories, for which there is no space in the printed version.

“The internet is free; therefore there is no cost for the space,” she said. She points to the potential for online advertising, an opportunity as yet largely unexploited by the Austrian press, particularly compared to pioneering online newspapers like The New York Times. “The Austrian newspapers still don’t have enough staff to produce their online versions,” she said. “We still haven’t caught up.”

This assessment was confirmed by the New York Times Online’s Fiona Spruill; the Times sells online ads, content sharing, and archives. “The printed word is not going away any time soon,” she said. “The paper copies are still the primary revenue for The New York Times.”

Journalist Craig L. Lamay, communications researcher and professor of journalism at Northwestern’s School of Journalism, is not so sure. But while he reports having little faith in the survival of the print media, he sees online news as a new wave of opportunities for journalists.

“People have received awards for blogs,” he said at the conference. Lamay also thinks that the written word is not the only media to suffer; the television and radio are facing an even greater struggle in a fight with the Web. IndeadIndeed, the battle is not over jet yet, we’ll just have to wait and see who wins.

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