A Dozen Newspaper Survival Tips For Academic Librarians

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.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

Daily Newspapers Consider Radical Change

I take a commuter train to work. My unscientific survey reveals that out of every ten newspaper readers, nine are reading the highly condensed, mostly infotainment and poorly reported – but free – commuter’s newspaper. The tenth person is reading the Philadelphia Inquirer. So it’s no wonder that this country’s metropolitan daily papers are considering radical change. Ideas under consideration include highly condensed versions a few days each week, eliminating paper editions on some days (see the web version those days) or eliminating home delivery most days in order to save gas. Previous ACRLog posts have pointed to the similar experiences of academic libraries and newspapers. Both mediate information to an end-user audience and are being displaced by other information providers. People pay for print newspapers. Libraries are free to end users; it hasn’t helped us avoid a similar fate. According to a recent BusinessWeek article, newspapers aren’t waiting to find out what they offer that can’t be replaced. They are exploring new ideas for reaching their communities in print and online. Some additional insights were offered by Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the NYT, when he spoke at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Executive Leadership Forum (See “Upheaval in News Business” on 6/10/08- no longer free). Keller said the NYT is discovering new “creative energy” by merging their online and print staffs, and supplementing in-depth articles with blogs and reader forums. Despite those efforts many expect one or two metropolitan dailies to shut their doors permanenly or at least cease publishing a print edition. Let’s hope the academic library’s similarities with newspapers ends there.

Web Surveys Have Inherent Problems

In an ACRLog post written a while back I expressed some concerns about the rise of library research being conducted by e-mail surveys. Want to research the use of clickers by academic librarians? Just send out a “take my survey” announcement to several discussion lists. It’s fast, it’s easy and it’s reliable. Well maybe you get two out of three with online surveys. Now experts are beginning to question the online survey; they may have too many weaknesses. According to an article in BusinessWeek, there are inherent problems with online surveys. The key problem is that the pools of respondents “rarely represent the larger population”. Online surveys have a tendency to attract opinionated people; they tend to respond to every survey while others ignore them all. While there are also problems with obtaining reliable results (the same surveys conducted just weeks apart had wildly different results), owing to their ease and convenience online surveys are here to stay. To improve representativeness and reliability, survey firms are mixing their methods. The surveys are still online, but they are randomly contacting individuals by phone or e-mail and inviting them to participate. That adds more statistical rigor to the web-based survey.

Follow Tips and Ideas for Speakers

We can all use some good advice to improve the quality of our presentations. A while back I recommended taking some time to watch videos of great presenters; you can learn a great deal by seeing the experts at work – and I provided some of the top sources for these videos. If you prefer to just read presenting tips to get ideas on how to do a better job, I have a suggestion for you. Take a look at Alltop’s new “speaking” section. Alltop is a site that compiles, on a daily basis, articles and posts from a wide range of news and blog sources. I sometimes use their education page to find posts for Kept-Up Academic Librarian. At Alltop Speaking you can quickly find tips on everything from the pros and cons of giving out your slides as a handout, to getting a presentation started, to being a better panelist. It’s also a great way to discover new presenting blogs. So take a look. It may just lead to better presentations.

Did You Try Talking To A Librarian?

Take a look at the blog Burnt Out Adjunct where the author has a post titled “Google Is Not Research“. BOA writes:

These students are not agog at the level and breadth of information available to them. Rather, they expect to be able to, within a few key strokes, to gain access to whatever information they seek. And, with aggregated search engines like Yahoo! and Google, they are, to a large extent, able to accomplish this…The cranky, if well-meaning professors, once confronted with such a bibliography, stare at the creatures seated in front of them and wonder, probably correctly, if these poor deluded punks have ever set foot in the hallowed halls of the school library. They haven’t. In their minds, they do not need to.

Read the rest, but as I did I kept asking myself, has BOA ever talked to one of the institution’s academic librarians. I doubt it. Collaboration could be a wonderful thing…if faculty, even the adjuncts, gave a thought to inviting us to participate. Or maybe we need to work harder to reach them. Anyway, you can see my comment to the post.