By Chit Estella
November 27, 2006
“One sentence will suffice to describe modern man: he fornicated and he read newspapers.” -Albert Camus, 1956
That may not be so anymore. At least, not as far as the second activity French philosopher, novelist, and essayist Camus mentioned is concerned. If some observers and members of the media are to be believed, fewer people are reading newspapers these days. In fact, newspaper readership worldwide is said to be declining so fast some doubt newspapers will still be around in the near future.
The immediate culprits are easy to identify: the Internet which provides “free” news literally at the click of a button, and cable news which can bring a breaking story right into a viewer’s living room or any other story at any hour of the day.
“The writing is on the wall,” admits Alexandra Prieto Romualdez, president of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country’s leading newspaper. Significantly, the Inquirer, more than any other Philippine newspaper, has been venturing into areas beyond the comfort zone of print journalists. It has gone into television, online news, and a compact version of the broadsheet—all in the hope of reaching an audience that is veering away from the traditional newspaper.
Indeed, the latest figures reported by the New York Times show a 2.8-percent drop in the average daily circulation of newspapers in the United States during a six-month period that ended in Sept. 30 this year (Inquirer, Nov. 2, 2006). The decline was “the steepest in any comparable six-month period in at least 15 years,” the report said.
Against a background of layoffs in some of the largest US newspaper companies, the sale of flagships in newspaper chains, and mergers among newspaper outfits, the outlook for the print medium would appear to be decidedly grim. And yet, most newspapers are hanging on. Why?
A closer look
“You can’t lump (what’s happening in all countries) into one public. It’s different for every country,” Romualdez says.
A closer look at the figures could offer some comfort. Data released this year by the World Association of Newspapers did show a decrease in circulation in the US (-2.35 percent) in 2005 but they also noted a significant increase in countries like China (8.9 percent) and India (7 percent).
Despite the dip in readership in the US, advertising revenues in American newspapers still rose by 1.51 percent last year and by 7 percent over five years. Revenue figures are even more remarkable in China where these grew by 19 percent in 2005 and by 128 percent over five years.
Globally, newspaper advertising revenues registered the biggest increase in four years and were up 5.7 percent in 2005, an increase from the previous year’s 5.28 percent.
Because of circulation growth in Asia, total newspaper sales worldwide still rose by .56 percent, and had increased by 6 percent over the past five years.
In the Philippines, the situation is more complex. Readership has been going both ways in the past five years, Romualdez says. “There is some decline but we can still see pockets of growth in some sectors and commu-nities,” she adds, noting that “We cannot assume the decline will take the same form in all countries.”
Sustained or even increasing readership in those countries that registered growth can be attributed to the relatively weak presence of the Internet and cable TV in those places. But that situation will not last.
“Every day, there is the reminder that we are going to follow the global trend (of declining newspaper readership),” Romualdez says, noting the difference between her parents’ generation which looked to the newspaper as the primary source of information and her children who use “free” news.
The good and the bad
“Remember the pager?” Romualdez asks. Also called the beeper, this used to be the gadget of choice for anyone who wanted to be contacted quickly. Report-ers, editors, businessmen, government officials, employees, doctors, and even students had it.
Today, all that remains is a vague memory of what that device was all about and even less about the leading company—Pocketbell—that produced it. The pager was quickly replaced by the cellular phone which started out the size of a man’s shoe.
The pager provides a lesson first taught by dinosaurs: one can become extinct. It is a lesson newspaper owners and workers would do well to remember.
The way one looks at the ongoing decline in circulation among many newspapers could be an indication of how well the lesson of survival has been learned. It need not be a totally bad thing.
“Not if it pushes people in a news organization to face reality. Like any other service, one has to continue improving oneself,” Romualdez says. One needs to be constantly reminded to be in touch with readers’ needs and the paper’s performance in the market.
But, yes, weak readership is also a sign that something wrong is going on.
The Inquirer president says, “It’s bad in the sense that people don’t see the need to put value on the kind of work that journalists do to write a story. It is an indication that people are not willing to pay for credible information. It is bad, too, because it is an indication that maybe our educational system has deteriorated in a way that the comfort level of people reading in English is no longer as good as it used to be.”
For journalism, that situation is “worrisome,” Romualdez says, because information one gets from texting or from the e-mail is often of lower quality than the processed information that is the hallmark of the print medium.
Further, “It is bad because the income levels of the public have not been increasing and newspapers have to subsidize the increase in costs,” she says.
“What we are seeing now is a lot depends on readers and the value they get for free. Since many are getting used to receiving free information, it’s going to be very difficult to turn back the clock,” Romualdez says.
There can be no short-term solutions either. “Otherwise, we’d be like that boy who put his finger into the hole in the dike to keep the flood out,” she says.
In countries where the decline in newspaper circulation has alarmed news organizations, strong and even unusual steps have been taken. To cut back on production costs and keep the final product affordable, some broadsheets have been downsized. British publications like The Independent and The Times of London have been shrunk to tabloid size to save on newsprint.
There is a realization that perhaps, one doesn’t really need all that space for all types of news. Editors are familiar with that problem: what to do with a “hole” on a page. These days, space fillers are no longer a good idea.
In the Philippines, the Inquirer has produced a compact version aimed at the Northern Luzon market (“They Shrank the Paper!: Inquirer Goes Compact,” PJR Reports, March 2006). The company has kept its big, older paper which continues to enjoy the largest share of the broadsheet market.
Citing the need for desperate measures in desperate times, some of the venerable papers abroad—The Guardian, Le Monde, and Le Figaro—have started offering freebies on some days of the week. DVDs are placed in plastic bags along with the supposed main product, the newspaper, to entice buyers. The Financial Times gave away condensed editions of business books.
The measure has worked—in certain instances. A good DVD film has been known to push a day’s circulation up by 20 percent or more, according to The Economist. Still, it doesn’t really solve the problem: for a newspaper to recover expenses on the freebies, the buyer must buy every day of the week even when there are no special offers to go with the paper.
The practice also poses a question: did a buyer pay for the newspaper or for the DVD? Even the ultimate media capitalist, Rupert Murdoch, reportedly disliked the practice because “people grab the paper, tear the DVD off and throw away the paper.”
The free paper
If buyers don’t want to pay for the paper, then why not let them have it for free?
That is exactly what many newspaper owners are doing in many parts of the world. The free papers are placed in areas where people gravitate, like the metro train stations. Strategically positioned in spots where commuters wait for the trains, the papers are there literally waiting to be picked up (“A Recipe for Hard Times: The Free Papers Are Here,” PJR Reports, Aug. 2006).
But nothing is really ever for free. In the case of such newspapers, advertisers shoulder the cost of producing them. Such is the case for Inquirer Libre and other new kids on the block like Standard Xpress. A free newspaper earns from advertisements that, in turn, target people with disposable incomes, like middle-class commuters in train stations. With about 400,000 commuters using the Metro Rail Transit and the Light Railway Transit daily, the number of potential consumers is far greater than what the circulation of any paid newspaper can offer.
In such a situation, the power placed in the hands of advertisers is simply awesome. When the Inquirer decided to print Libre, Romualdez says it was “a very risky thing” for the company. Not long ago, the newspaper saw how vulnerable it could get when movie advertisers suddenly pulled out during a boycott ordered by former president Joseph Estrada.
But the risk appears to be worth it. Taking advantage of commuters’ idle time while they’re waiting or are on board a train, the free paper is able to get the attention of readers. Because the stories are shorter and often written in the form of a list, the commuter finishes reading these even before he or she steps off the train.
Defending the difference in quality between the other products of the company and the free paper, Romualdez says, “The idea is to be able to go through a story before you get to work and to pass it on…Libre tries to be more helpful, for instance, by coming up with tips on how to prevent dengue.” She adds that the company’s mission and vision continue to govern the strategy of the free paper.
In a new format, some rules are bound to be broken. While the broadsheet Inquirer has resisted putting any form of advertise-ment on its front page, there are days when Libre’s entire front page would be occupied by an ad. The ads would mimick the appearance of the paper’s true front page.
Facing the ‘enemy’
With the growing number of readers turning to the Internet for news, newspapers have decided to join the trend rather than fight it. Most newspapers now have online versions despite the fact that making news available for free could eat into the market of the paid version.
The Inquirer has not yet been able to determine the effect of INQ7.net on the readership of the broadsheet even as, Romualdez agrees, “as far as global studies are concerned, they see the Internet as the main reason for the dip in newspaper reading.”
It is better, she says, to “embrace” the change and “see if there can be synergy” in the way the two forms of media work.
In certain newsrooms around the world, “synergy” has become the new buzzword. It refers to the efforts being made by newspaper offices to combine the resources and manpower of their print and online staffs so as to maximize these. The New York Times, for example, has started breaking down the wall between the operations of its newspaper staff and its online team.
Blurring the boundaries between print and online journalism has not been easy to accept. Sailing has not been smooth in newsrooms that have begun to experiment even as journalists are being asked to remember that in the word “newspaper,” the more important part is the “news” rather than the “paper.”
Print journalism carries out a kind of romance with its practitioners that other forms of media do not. Old journalists used to say that the smell of printer’s ink was like adrenaline to them. A printing press churning out copies of the next day’s newspapers is a scene that has been repeated in many movies. Has anyone ever seen a film that focused for any length of time on a television tower?
Romualdez says she is not an “agnostic” where the news medium is concerned; she prefers print. “Publishing is what we do,” she says but adds, “Every day, there is a reminder that we must start embracing the idea that you need to be more open to get the reader anytime, anywhere. I am getting there.”
If the picture is one of impending doom, how then does one explain the emergence of new newspapers in the local scene?
Romualdez laughs and says, “I don’t know!”
The puzzle is not unique to the Philippine newspaper business.
In Russia, the number of newspapers rose from 485 in 2004 to 491 last year. In fact, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was reported to have told editors in this year’s World Editors Forum that he has bought a 49-percent share in Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper described as being critical of the government. Way back in 1993, Gorbachev used his money from the Nobel Peace Prize to help set up the Gazeta. The newspaper was where Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist who was mysteriously killed recently, used to work.
In the Netherlands where total circulation has gone down by 3.67 percent, there is a bit of good news that may well hold the key to the survival of newspapers.
NRC Next, a new tabloid, has surprised the Dutch newspaper industry by overshooting its target of a 40,000 circulation by almost two-fold just half a year after its launch. It is drawing readers 35 years old and below, the age group commonly believed to have been lost by newspapers to the Internet.
The paper differs from the others with its emphasis on the “why” and “how” of a story rather than the “what,” “where,” “who,” and “when.” It presupposes that its readers have already picked up basic information from other media and are turning to it for a more substantial treatment of the news. The best part of NRC Next’s success story is not just its being read; readers actually pay for it.
All things considered, it is rather early to ring the death knell for the newspaper. It is not the first time that the end of the print medium has been declared by doomsayers. The same thing was said when radio and then television came about. Newspapers not only survived but emerged as the more reliable medium.
This time, however, the challenges are unmistakably more formidable. As publishers and journalists respond to these, hopes persist that one day it can be safely said: rumors on the death of the newspaper have been greatly exaggerated.