Inside the Information Society: Breaking the news

Last time I wrote about the (unexpected) resilience of the book in digital times. Far from dying out, book sales are currently reviving. But what about those other icons of the print age, newspapers? What’s happening to them, and does it matter?

Newspapers, many people say, face a ‘perfect storm’, a crisis whose multiple aspects combine and reinforce one another to create an existential crisis, threatening their survival. But – two questions – is this true everywhere? and will/can newspapers survive?

What’s happening to newspapers?

Readers in the global North (at least) are turning away from newspapers (which cost money) to online sources of news and information (which don’t), both advertising-funded websites and social media. Facebook and the like have become the main source of news for many, especially the young.

  • Newspaper sales have fallen dramatically as a result, cutting the revenue that papers rely on to pay for writing, printing, distribution. Daily sales of Britain’s four most popular papers have dropped from 7.1 million to 3.9 million since 2010; its more ‘serious’ titles from 2.1 million to 1.2 million. Most people no longer read a newspaper.

  • Even worse for papers’ business models, revenue from advertising has collapsed. Facebook and Google now dominate advertising markets, because they target ads on consumers more effectively than newspapers and TV.  (Amazon is catching up.) Small (personal) ads, which used to finance local papers, have also gone online.

  • Newspapers can’t, as a result, maintain the rosters of reporters that they used to have.  National papers have cut back on journalists, particularly specialists like foreign correspondents.  Tweets have replaced expert analysis in many stories.  Local newspapers, where they survive, rely on syndicated content and press releases rather than young reporters learning on the job.

  • Demand for news is also changing. Papers often used to print several editions through the night or day. That’s harder now with lower circulations – and, in any case, print can’t keep up with the constantly updated news feeds that are available online.

  • All this means there’s less diversity in newsprint than there used to be. Loss-making papers go out of business – unless they’re picked up as propaganda vehicles by those who want to use the political influence they still can yield. Fewer papers mean more media concentration (the Murdoch corporation, for instance, dominates traditional media in Australia) and less political diversity.  

Is this true everywhere?

Different countries have different media environments. Newspaper readership and newspapers’ place in the national media context (in comparison. e.g., with broadcasting) are obviously affected by levels of literacy, for example, affordability and, nowadays, the extent to which online alternatives are actually available. That, in turn, is affected by demographics including issues of age, gender and education.

So where’s the difference? Newspaper readership does not seem to have declined so much in India, for example, as in Britain or America – though young Indians are much more likely than their elders to use online sources of news.  Political change has also led to more (or less) engagement with newspapers in different countries. Trends away from print are likely to be widespread but, as usual, much more evidence is needed from developing countries if we’re to avoid making false assumptions from Northern experience.

So does this matter?

Lovers of traditional media regret the decline of newspapers, naturally, but are they right? What’s being lost? And is it compensated for – as Internet enthusiasts have claimed – by gains in newer forms of media?

It’s worth remembering two things.

First, newspapers haven’t always been with us: the first appeared around 400 years ago. They had tiny circulations to start with, and only became mass market media in the twentieth century.  It may seem to us that they’ve always been part of the media landscape, but they’ve not. Humanity once lived without them; it could do so again.

Second, newspapers differ and serve different markets.  We should not romanticise them.  Some have strong commitments to investigative journalism, to accuracy, to unravelling ‘the truth’ (at least as they see it). Others are focused on celebrities and entertainment. Many are propaganda vehicles for governments, their owners or the political causes they support.   

Journalistic values are also diverse. The kind of journalism that’s idealised – war correspondents and investigative journalists fearlessly reporting truth to power – sits alongside much that’s much less ethical – intruding into private lives, manipulating readers for commercial or political objectives.

What would we lose?

What would we lose if newspapers were replaced by online media? I think this depends substantially on national media contexts - for example, on whether broadcasting is government-controlled, independent or politically neutral (as in public service broadcasting), or partisan like newspapers); and on how widely read, how influential and how politically diverse newspapers have been.   

Among those areas of journalism most vulnerable are those that cost a lot – investigative journalism, serious analysis of complex issues (both international and domestic) – and local news.  But it’s possible to see how each of these, too, could migrate to broadcasting and online media. 

Can newspapers fight back?

I wrote last time about the resilience and revival of the book, and book-selling, as they’ve adapted to meet the challenge of digital competitors. Book sales in Britain are now going up again.  That’s not, so far, the case with newspapers, but could they at least stabilise their sales? What would they need to do to do so?

Newspapers have survived major changes in the media landscape before now: the introduction first of radio, then of television, and, later, the digitalisation of printing and distribution (which cut print costs). But that doesn’t mean the same will happen now. If newspapers are to survive, I’d say, they need to change in three ways.

First, focus. Papers need to consider what they can do better, and can’t do better, than online media or broadcasting. They can’t compete today on breaking news, but they can offer deeper analysis – see, for example, the development of ‘long read’ articles in some papers. They may need to become more like magazines than traditional news sources in order to maintain the interest of existing readers and attract a younger generation.

Second, news-gathering. Relying on tweets rather than reporters doesn’t improve the quality of journalism. Drawing on a wider range of sources can do so if properly contextualised and integrated with professional journalism. If social media news feeds are echo-chambers, perhaps newspapers could show they’re not by emphasising diversity of views and interests.

Third, integrating old and new. Some papers have built successful online platforms that complement rather than replicating what can be found in paper papers. Some, like the New York Times, The Guardian and Daily Mail have built worldwide readerships. Others, particularly smaller papers from smaller countries, may find this more challenging.

Some papers been successful with firewalls and subsriptions. Many of these have reputations for quality and accuracy – ‘newspapers of record’, specialist papers with global markets like the Financial Times.  Others that don’t provide a premium service have struggled to make this model work. One or two have tried alternative models such as 'membership'.  At best these compensate for sales, not lost advertising revenue.

In conclusion

I love newspapers (at least those that I choose to buy).  I think they’re an important part of an inclusive democratic culture (though that’s obviously not true everywhere). As I suggested last time, I think ‘move fast and keep things’ is a better goal than Facebook’s ‘move fast and break things’. Our cultures are likely to be better if we have both online services and newspapers.

As things stand, though, newspaper publishing is struggling. If they’re to survive, and be more than merely vehicles for wealthy people to subsidise in order to buy influence, they need to find new ways of financing their journalism. We should recognise that many are likely to fail, and think about the consequences of that for democracy and political engagement.

At the same time, though, we shouldn’t mistake the platform for the principle. What matters is that we don’t lose the kind of contribution that newspapers have traditionally made to public debate and public life (which includes entertainment as well as other news, and diversity of political/social/cultural debate as well as acting as the mouthpiece of the owner/editor). That contribution’s ultimately more important than the (physical or digital) forms that news may take in future.

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.


Image:  Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash


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