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Newspapers may be dying, but journalism must survive

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Newspapers are dying. It’s inevitable, and it is natural. They will continue to decline for however many years they can still fight on, but will eventually succumb to extinction.

Newsprint sales at local, regional, and national levels, have all be waning over the last 20 years, and the figures show no sign of slowing down. Yes, it is true that newspapers had worried at the introduction of radio, and later of television, yet each time found ways to adapt and stay afloat.

The introduction of digital information and social media, however, is not an obstacle; it’s a revolution.

This isn’t by any means a negative change. An end to an era, perhaps, but not something that needs to be resisted. When the first newspapers came about, ink to paper was the only manner in which to publish news. Today, with a host of technologies, formats and mediums, there is nothing that binds journalism to paper, ink, or even text.

What’s crucial now is not to halt the deterioration of newspapers, but to ensure journalism survives the death of print.

What threatens digital journalism is revenue. Newspapers’ business model is based around advertising revenue, yet this revenue source is in freefall.

As Washington Post writer Pete Vernon explains, “with shrinking circulations and an inability to provide the targeted marketing and detailed analytics of options such as Google and Facebook, print just isn’t as enticing to advertisers”.

Meanwhile, online advertising doesn’t bring in a sufficient revenue stream either. Advertising is more profitable when distributed across hundreds of websites, based on real-time data and therefore targeted more effectively. Companies are therefore more reluctant to commit advertising to one source.

Newspapers are consequently trapped by social media, which have morphed consumer behaviour and prompted a diversion of advertising away from news establishments, regardless of the fact that reach of digital newspapers has never been higher.

Thus, the way newspapers are currently navigating the shift involves cutting costs year by year, to prevent the cost line from overtaking the revenue line. This is obviously not a sustainable strategy.

As digital titans lap up advertising, it threatens the survival of journalism itself.

Though digital profits have shown fairly disappointing profits so far, The Independent’s decision to axe its printing presses and paper distributions, and exist instead solely online, has shown promise.

In ridding itself of printing costs, and refocusing efforts to digital, The Independent has become profitable for the first time in 20 years. This by no means signifies it to be safe. It also involved the leaving of 110 of the company’s 200 editorial staff, and the hiring of younger, inexperienced staff on lower salaries.

Digital revenue is still too low, content is having to change to attract wider audiences, staff is being cut and investigative journalism is becoming scarce. Journalism itself is becoming at risk, even when newspapers are being successful in the digital ether.   

In a tempestuous era of fake news and corrupt politics, the need for accurate reporting and informed analysis has rarely been greater. The decline of papers is causing “a profound democratic deficit”, according to Mike Gilson in Press Gazette, as no one is left to hold authorities to account is a reliable manner.  

Such democratic deficit has also been caused by some papers increasing political partisanship to consolidate a core audience. In attempts to survive, newspapers are industrialising confirmation bias, to confirm rather than challenge readers’ existing beliefs.

Social media has long been recognised for its ‘echo chamber’ effect, which just contributes to polarising society and diminish hopes of bridging political differences. However, this has also been tabloids’ business model for many years, and in seeing its relative success some newspapers are following suit.  

It is the desperation for revenue that drives too many to superficiality and sensationalism, in a quest for greater online readership.

A new solution is needed. Some papers, such as The Times, have committed to a full pay-wall, selling deeper reader engagement to advertisers in exchange for higher readership.

Others, like The Telegraph, opt for a metered paywall, which allows access to some free content to secure brand visibility, but require payment for full access.

The open model, spearheaded by The Guardian, relies on hopes that greater digital reach will translate into monetisation of content without the need for subscription. Yet this model caused the Guardian Media Group a loss of £69m in 2016.

Unfortunately, according to Reuters and other studies, only around 10% of English-speakers support the idea of paying for online news. Therefore, if free access doesn’t work but the majority of individuals resist paying for subscriptions, what is the solution?

A number of strategies are being explored. Forbes’ usage of an AdBlock detector, which stops readers from accessing the page until disabled, may be a partial solution to the failings of digital advertising revenue.

Another tactic may be to price consumers out of print in an expedited manner. Increasing the costs of print editions would force subscribers to switch to paid online access. For this to work though, newspaper companies must ensure that the quality of their content far exceeds that of free news accessible on social media and other sites.

Journalism at its best introduces nuance to debate and helps inform without erasure of complexities. It is now the responsibility of the press to solve problems of revenue without compromising journalistic integrity, so that media can continue to fulfil its civic duty in providing evaluative, informed social and political commentary.

 

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