The newspaper industry has become a case study of sorts for what not to do to evolve in the Internet Age. Having waited too long to adapt to the Internet’s unique ability to broadcast real-time news, newspapers now find themselves struggling to survive, and in the past year several failed to do so. Given that both newspapers and libraries serve as mediators of information in an age when individuals can go directly to the Internet to obtain news and information, it’s reasonable to draw parallels between the two. Here at ACRLog we have posted before on that exact topic.
So given the similarities it is likewise reasonable to question if academic libraries will survive. What do we need to do to make sure that happens? Newspapers are getting lots of advice for what they need to do to survive in the 21st century. How well might that advice work for academic libraries? I wanted to put that question to the test, and had a good opportunity to do so when Vadim Lavrusik, a new media student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, posted an essay on the “12 Things Newspapers Should Do to Survive” at Mashable.com. So let’s take them one at a time and consider how well academic libraries could implement these recommendations, or whether we are already successfully evolving in the Internet Age.
1. Put the Web First: Translated to libraries this point suggests we should emphasize connecting with our user community via the Web, and de-emphasize more traditional means. Reporters are still hired to emphasize reporting in print. Academic librarians appear well adapted to working with both electronic and print media. We seem to have already caught on to the importance of operating effectively across multiple platforms and media – we’re not hanging on to print as the holy grail. Then again, we don’t depend on print advertising as our main revenue stream.
2. Go Niche: Newspapers can’t be all things to all people, and neither can your academic library. Our advantage is that we know the specialists in our communities. It allows us to target the niche groups within our institutions, and deliver personalized services to them. This strategy may work better at smaller institutions, just as a community paper can go niche more so than a large metro daily.
3. Offer Unique Content in Print: Has the time come to stop collecting the most common content in print? Why are we still putting so much effort into collecting that which is easily accessible online? Newspapers are realizing that offering the same information available everywhere else is a losing proposition. It may be time to emphasize and promote those print collections not easily accessible elsewhere – and leverage them globally through resource sharing networks. Granted, newspapers are businesses and libraries are not. Should we stop subscribing to the local paper because it’s online and print copies are available for purchase everywhere? People expect their library to have a copy of the local paper. It’s a tough call, but tradeoffs may be necessary.
4. Librarians as Curators and Contextualizers: It was interesting to see the recommendation that newspapers should “verify what is real and what is not from all the information out there”. Isn’t that what we claim to help library users do? If that’s a survival strategy we need to get better at promoting what we offer. Newspapers are finding it tough to compete with the convenience and timeliness of online news sources – and the free factor. But newspapers still continue to excel in analysis and helping to understand a situation. Librarians can’t compete with the ease, speed, convenience and cost of the web as an information source. Like newspapers we have to capitalize on our ability to get people beneath the surface of any issue.
5. Real-Time Reporting Integration: Newspapers need to move more aggressively into real-time reporting because everyone can now report and produce news as it happens. Academic libraries need to integrate into real-time information exchanges and real-time networks to establish a presence and lay the groundwork for connecting with members of the user community – and many academic libraries are already moving into the Real-Time Web.
6. Start-up vs. Corporate: Is organizational bureaucracy overwhelming your ability to innovate? If so, you have something in common with newspapers. In the corporate model bureaucratic requirements make it difficult to be agile and able to shift rapidly to meet changing expectations. Like newspapers, if we expect to have a future, we need a cultural shift so we operate more like start-ups do.
7. Encourage Innovation: That goes hand-in-hand with adopting a start-up culture. Academic libraries need to create the workplace environment that encourages innovative thinking and action. Newspapers were slow to innovate and look where it got them.
8. Charging for quotes: This really doesn’t apply to academic libraries but I thought I’d throw it in the mix because this is a strategy that might bring in some additional revenue for newspapers, but ultimately could backfire and cause a real backlash in the global web community. It’s important to innovate and try new things, but we need to be mindful of how it impacts on the user community. The last thing we want to do is alienate them.
9. Invest in Mobile Technology: Newspapers are looking at how they can increase readership by getting their content on all mobile devices. Newspaper subscriptions via e-readers is one example of that strategy. No surprises here for academic libraries. We simply can’t ignore the importance of having a mobile presence.
10. Communicate with Readers: Newspapers that want to survive are doing all they can to allow readers to get involved and interact with journalists. The online New York Times prominently features selected reader comments. This is an ongoing challenge for all libraries. We have yet to find something truly compelling for our communities that engages them and encourages their online participation. Fortunately we do have other channels of communication to reach our user communities, and perhaps those will offer some opportunities for new forms of engagement.
11. Building Community: Newspapers are realizing it takes more than quality content. By creating real communities of engaged readers they build loyal relationships. That approach should pay off for academic libraries too. We need to continue to develop and maintain our physical communities and find ways to leverage technology to extend those communities into virtual spaces.
12. Pay Wall or No Pay Wall: This is the biggest issue confronting newspapers. Should they freely give away their content or put it behind subscriber-only walls. This is less of an issue for academic libraries. We’ve already put all of our valuable content behind walls that are for affiliates only. There are issues. Is the walled garden approach sustainable? What happens as more of our subscription content becomes freely available? Will we be pressured to accept advertising as a tradeoff for keeping subscription costs manageable? Like newspapers, we may have some real dilemmas to confront in the not-too-distant future.
While the comparison between the newspaper industry and the academic library is occasionally a less than perfect match, there are definitely some areas where we face similar challenges and opportunities. That means we can find good lessons to learn and work from as we try to re-think our services and resources to meet new expectations and user behaviors. Are there other industries we should be observing and seeking new ideas from which we can improve our own practices? I believe there are, and as I come across them I’ll continue to share what I learn here at ACRLog – but I hope you will help by bringing what you learn about them to our attention.