Mar 192013
 

clip_image002THE FUTURE OF NEWSPAPERS

by

Chit Estella- Simbulan*

(Published originally in the Philippine Journalism Review, June 2007 issue)

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The advent of the Internet is widely regarded by media practitioners as the biggest thing to happen since the invention of the printing press. It has changed–and continues to change– communication. The Internet has given readers the widest array of information to choose from in the easiest manner possible. It has allowed readers to express their opinions freely, without being edited or censored. It provides news almost as soon as events happen.

Because the Internet gives its audiences information when they want it and how they want it, it has gained a formidable edge over newspapers. Publishers around the world are expressing alarm over what they fear to be the impending demise of the newspaper. As fast as they can, they are trying to find ways of answering the challenge posed by the digital medium. But as they do so, they are changing not just the way in which the news is delivered but the kind of news that is provided.

This article makes use of interviews, speeches, and published materials related to the issue of newspapers and the Internet. Six months ago, when the author first wrote an article about the future of newspapers, the mood of most publishers toward the challenge of the Internet was skeptical, even disdainful of the thought that a great change was underway. The newspaper, after all, has survived the threats posed by radio and television. But in an international conference of publishers in April (2007), that mood had changed. A sense of urgency has begun to sweep the newspaper industry. What began as the concern of publishers has also prompted journalists, particularly editors, into thinking about what the future might be. In a very real sense, the issue has become not just about the future of newspapers but also about the future of newspapers.

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Playing cards were first mentioned to have been used in 969 A.D. The cards were produced by block printing, which also reproduced religious texts, paper money, and historical accounts.

It would take at least a century before a faster system of printing would be developed. In 1041, the Chinese invented the movable type of typography and four centuries later in 1450, Johann Gutenberg– the whom the Western world credits with “inventing” the same movable type — came up with the printing press, a machine that would play a powerful role in human affairs through the publication of newspapers (Gunaratne, 2001).

More than a millenium later, playing cards are still very much around, entertaining and providing a diversion for their users. Newspapers are also still around. But there is a difference. While playing cards are not in any danger of extinction (in fact, the US military found a novel use for these as “Wanted” posters for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his cohorts right after the American invasion of Iraq), newspapers are widely believed to be dying.

On January 1, 2007, the oldest existing newspaper in the world — Sweden’s Post-och Inrikes Tidningar ( Post and Diplomatic Newspapers), which was founded in 1645 — ceased its paper edition and began publishing on the Internet (Oldest newspaper in the world, 2007). It was only one of the latest newspapers to go online.

Years before, the largest and most reputable newspapers in the world had started straddling between the traditional print medium and the online and digital medium. In the Philippines and abroad, there is hardly an established newspaper or publication that does not have an online version.

But the move taken by Post-och Inrikes Tidningar is one that many newspapers view with fascination and fear. If that is the wave of the immediate future, the implications are dire for newspapers as a business, for journalism as a profession, and for editors and reporters as practitioners.

A new world

We know we are living in a new age when new worlds come to describe the things that used to be called by other names. When publishers and chief executive officers of newspapers speak, they now talk in terms of “platforms”, “brand”, “content managers”, “production hub”, “content providers”, “consumers”, and “revenue stream”. Such words when put on paper would never go past a copy editor but then, again, who would know that these terms refer to newspapers?

Listening closely to the CEOs and publishers, one realizes that “platforms” are what used to be called “media” or their different forms. The platform can be print, television, radio, the Internet, or any devise or medium that is being used or developed to convey information.

The “brand” is simply the name of the “platform” that one owns. It is the name of the print or digital newspaper or what, in journalism school, is called by the more emotion-laden word, the “flag”. Today, like condensed milk and detergent, a newspaper is known by its “brand”.

A “production hub” is a newsroom. With a layout that looks like a wheel, the “production hub” is also referred to as a “converged newsroom” because it brings together the various editorial teams for the print, online, and video platforms. The teams are positioned in such a way that they revolve around the main editorial desk.

A “content manager” does not necessarily refer to a satisfied, highly paid executive. Rather, he or she is a person who used to be called an editor. “Content” used to be known as “news” but these days it has been accepted that not all that is produced by a “platform” can be considered news. Thus they are known by the humbler name — “contents” — which must be managed.

The “content provider” could be a reporter or, in this age of citizen journalism, anybody who could give a story, a photograph, or video from a cell phone or camera.

The “consumer” used to be known as the newspaper reader, the television viewer, and the radio listener. Today, these audiences are frankly referred to as targets for one’s products, which might be the newspaper or a television/radio program itself. Products also refer to those being sold by advertisers who buy space or air time in media.

“Revenue streams” refer to a media company’s sources of profit. Traditionally, these were the other publications that a parent newspaper company puts out. These days, however, ventures have included services and products that have the vaguest relationship to journalism — such as a nursing school or a telenovela. Media companies have started going into these businesses to ensure their financial viability so they could continue putting out their “brand” which is the core product.

The controversial media mogul Rupert Murdoch introduced his own terms in a speech before the American Society of News Editors in 2005 (News Corporation, 2005). He called himself a “digital immigrant” because he “wasn’t weaned on the web nor coddled on a computer.” He grew up with newspapers. In contrast, his young children are “digital natives” who “never knew a world without the ubiquitous broadband Internet access.” Because the “digital natives ” can never be expected to become newspaper readers, Murdoch said it would do well for “digital immigrants” in the newspaper industry to learn the habits of the “natives.” Only then can they hope to meet the challenges of the new digital world.

Such is the frame of mind of media industrialists and managers whenever they get together in international conferences to discuss ways of dealing with an environment that has changed so quickly, and, it seems, irrevocably. Such gatherings have increasingly become fraught with apprehension, if not panic, as executives point to dwindling newspaper circulations in most parts of the world, the shift of advertisers from print to online, and the closure of even the most venerable newspapers as proofs of a dying industry.

To be sure, their apprehensions are forcefully met by assurances that the picture is not all that bad. The World Association of Newspapers, for example, points out that the newspaper industry worldwide remains a strong and powerful $180-billion enterprise. There are still 1.4 billion readers who pick up their newspapers every day. Despite the ongoing loss of advertising to online brands, newspapers remain the second largest medium for advertisers. Two million employees work in newspapers globally. And despite the closure of many publications and the emergence of free newspapers, there still exist 10,000 paid-for dailies worldwide.

But it is a situation in which newspapers take little comfort.

A study commissioned by the Carnegie Corporations in 2005 concluded that “the future of the US news industry is seriously threatened by the seemingly irrevocable move by young people away from traditional sources of news” (Brown, 2005). The survey, conducted among 18-to 34 -year olds, showed that 44% of the respondents turned to Internet portals for their daily news. Local television was preferred by 37% network or capable TV web sites and newspapers tie in for third place at 19%; cable networks, 18%; and national broadcast networks, 16%.

The study concluded: ” This audience, the future news consumers and leaders of a complex, modern society, are abandoning the news as we’ve known it, and its increasingly clear that a great number of them will never return to daily newspapers and the national broadcast news programs.”

In the Philippines, the Newspaper and Magazine Dealers Association of the Philippines claimed that readership had been declining by at least 10% each year (Readership declining, 2007). The rising prices of newspapers and the growing economic difficulties of buyers were cited as the main reasons for the decline, in addition to the increasing popularity of the Internet.

As early as 2003, the Social Weather Stations (SWS) was reported by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) to have found that only 11% of Filipinos polled read newspapers everyday. The same PCIJ report said total circulation of Manila-based broadsheets and tabloids was about 1.5 million — not a bad number for a population of about 80 million, but worrisome when one considers that this is almost the same number as it was during the Marcos years when the population was just about half of what it is now. The preferred medium would now appear to be television, which is said to be watched daily by about 60% of the same respondents who were polled by SWS.

A Pulse Asia survey cited by PCIJ yielded an unhappier result: in a previous election campaign, only 4% of the respondents said the newspapers were their primary source of information about the candidates and the campaign itself. Television, on the other hand, was the source of 71% of the respondents, and radio, 30%.

Despite the grim prognosis, publishers like Philippine Daily Inquirer president Alexandra Prieto Romualdez continue to look for pockets of growth for newspapers in certain areas in the country, particularly those that have not yet been penetrated by the Internet (Estella, 2006). But even that is just a matter of time. Dr. Dietmar Schantin, director of the Ifra Newsplex in Germany, told this year’s international conference of publishers in Manila, that wile Internet usage in the Philippines is just 9%, it is growing by 291% (Schantin, 2007).

Schantin’s numbers appear to be supported by the behavior of the most market-sensitive sector of society — the advertisers. In Inquirer.net, revenues from advertisements have increased by 100% every year over the past four years. And while the Inquirer’s broadsheet product remains strong, Romualdez admits that, ” Everyday, there is the reminder that we are going to follow the global trend (of declining newspaper readership.”

Stemming the tide

As newspaper publishers try to understand the new environment that they find themselves in, they are also hounded by the imperatives of survival. With the rising costs of newsprint and other inputs on one hand and declining sales and advertising on the other, newspapers are pushing to find ways of just staying alive.

One is by reducing the size of the newspaper. Broadsheets have become narrower and shorter, with a few centimeters lopped off from their edges to save on the cost of valuable newsprint.

Another is by transforming broadsheets into compact or tabloid-size publications. This was resorted to by The Times of London, The Independent, and The Guardian. Even business-oriented broadsheets like the Asian Wall Street Journal have joined the compact-version bandwagon. In the Philippines, broadsheets have been more cautious. The Inquirer has come up with a compact version which is distributed mainly in Northern Luzon.

While these measures are aimed at encouraging readers to continue using newspapers and enabling newspaper companies to cope with the rising costs of production, there remains the need for long-term measures.

Observing media usage, Schantin noted that television is preferred by those who want their news in the evening. Newspapers are for those who want the news in the morning. Radio is for those who want news during the day. The web is for those who have access to the Internet in the office and who want to see the news anytime they can.

The option to read the news at any time is among the primary attractions of the digital media. Consumers no longer have to wait for the news. It is the news — or more specifically, their disseminators — that must look for the audience. As more people gain access to the Internet, a particular behavior is also emerging: the expectation that they will get the news when they want it, where they want it, and how they want it. Moreover, consumers of the news no longer care much for stories that happened yesterday; they expect to get what is breaking or ongoing. They want the latest developments, which is why news at the Internet always shows the time when a particular story was uploaded. In these aspects, the digital medium seems to have the edge over print.

Responding to the challenge, publishers have tried various ways of keeping their old readers and luring those who have stayed away from newspapers.

Newspaper companies have resorted to gimmickry, like giving away freebies to attract buyers. Venerable newspapers in Europe like The Guardian gave away items for free like CDs in the hope of boosting sales. The practice, however, was eventually discredited. One never knew whether a person bought the newspaper or the CD. Besides, the newspapers could not be giving away freebies everyday. One critic likened the effort to a person who, wanting to appear taller, tries to stand on his toes. The effect is temporary and misleading.

A more promising approach was the decision to produce free papers. It was on February 13, 1995 when the first free newspaper appeared in the metro stations of Stockholm, Sweden (Wilkinson, 2007). Twelve years later, in 2007, the number of free dailies worldwide has risen to 360, with a total of 30 million copies in 40 countries.

Earl J. Wilkinson, executive director of the International Newspaper Marketing Association-USA, said that free dailies are able to reach young adults and women — sectors that are usually not reached by the broadsheets. Free dailies are not just able to survive but even generate advertising income because of the professionals who read them while waiting for or riding the train. The potential of free dailies is such that more newspapers abroad are trying out the strategy. Wilkinson noted that the Manchester Evening News, which used to come out with four street editions every day, initially converted one of these editions into a free paper as a kind of experiment. So successful was it that just one year later, the publishers decided to convert all four editions into free papers (Wilkinson, 2007).

In places like Copenhagen, Denmark, publishers of the free dailies are even bolder. Three dailies are not just being given away for free; they are being delivered to the doorsteps of their intended readers. The effect on paid-for newspapers was unsurprising: circulation went down, with combined losses amounting to $ 1 million a day (Wilkinson, 2007).

The Philippines has Inquirer Libre which first saw print on November 19, 2001. With a daily circulation of 110,000 it comes out Monday to Friday, catching the commuters in Metro Manila who use the light rail transit in going to work in the morning (Macale, 2006). Other free papers have come — and gone. Only Inquirer Libre has succeeded in sustaining its distribution.

Another tack being taken by more newspaper companies is the creation of more publications that are directed at specific audiences or niches. While retaining its core product, the broadsheet, a company also publishes magazines on sports, hobbies, lifestyle, or other interests. The new publications may also target specific age brackets,such as when magazines are produced for early teens, young adults, and mature women. These are called “revenue streams”, so-called because they provide earnings which may be small individually but add up to a significant amount.

The Inquirer, the Manila Bulletin, and The Philippine Star — the country’s top three dailies — all have sibling publications that serve as additional revenue streams to their respective companies. According to David Valdes, chief executive officer of the Inquirer, his company has adopted the “long-tail concept” of other newspaper offices abroad. Under this concept, a newspaper company comes up with many products in addition to the broadsheet. Revenues obtained from these other products are smaller than those generated by the core product –the broadsheet– but they somehow help shore up the finances of the company.

The fight for survival can sometimes drive newspaper companies to resort to desperate measures. When the Korean sports nespaper Joong Ang-Ilbo went bankrupt and was bought by another company, the new owners took drastic steps. According to Changhee Park, director of the newspaper’s Strategic Planning Office, the company reduced manpower,imposed longer working hours, and made extensive use of untrained contributors who are now widely referred to as citizen-journalists. As an added revenue stream, the company also produced telenovelas. These combined efforts — some of which might have caused discomfort among the journalists in the newspaper’s staff– succeeded in turning the company around. Snatched from the jaws of financial bankruptcy, the newspaper now enjoys daily circulation of 1.8 million.

Embracing the new technology

Even as adherents of the print medium continue to defend the viability of newspapers, publishers are already looking around for an alternative to delivering the news. Technologists are developing what they call the electronic paper or e-paper. This medium seeks to offer the visual attractiveness of print as well as the high-tech advantages of the digital medium. The e-paper would be foldable just like a newspaper. But it will be equipped with a device that gives the reader the same services that an online publication provides. It would allow the reader to choose which news or content he or she wishes to see first, provide links to other stories, and even allow access to archives. The technological breakthrough to make such a medium affordable to buyers has yet to happen but efforts to bring this about are underway. Some newspapers have taken the necessary steps in preparation for the day when a commercially viable e-paper would become available.

So far, most newspaper publishers have chosen to meet the challenges of the Internet by joining the club rather than fighting it. Online versions have been put up to complement the print versions of newspapers and magazines. Publishers claim that the online version has not really eaten into the market of its printed counterpart. It has been observed, for example, by the Inquirer that its online readers are largely made up of overseas Filipinos while its print readers have remained devoted to the broadsheet. According to Valdes, 68% of readers of the Inquirer broadsheet do not read Inquirer.net and continue to regard the print version as their primary source of news. This means that the print version continues to hold on to its share of the audience notwithstanding the availability of other forms of news delivery.

But newspaper owners are not about to leave anything to chance. A little further down the road, publishers, particularly those who do not have the resources to avail themselves of the latest technology in media, are bracing themselves for another possibility: that of merging with bigger, wealthier media outfits, or even Internet portals. Independence is given up for survival. But while mergers and acquisitions have been easier to do in countries where large conglomerates thrive, this option may be more complicated for countries like the Philippines. Here, media ownership remains closed to foreigners. Although newspapers have been acquired by Filipinos who own other businesses that are far more profitable than print publication, such owners make it clear that they expect their newly acquired papers to eventually make money just like their other businesses. When that possibility disappears, so does the newspaper.

What about the news?

Ravi Dhariwal is the proud CEO of The Times of India. With a daily circulation of 1.6 million, the newspaper promises “more bang for the buck” (Dhariwal, 2007). He likens the paper to an executive briefing where “we give readers everything from sex to spirituality.”

The Times’ editorial philosophy, according to Dhariwal, is summed up thus: “De-emphasize death, destruction, disaster and decay”. The paper instead “celebrates success, diversity, festivals and everyday life.” The last is presented in a daily section, ” A Day in the Life of India,” which is usually humorous.

Along with this editorial thrust, the newspaper company decided in the 1990s to cut its price by half. Circulation tripled. Today, the paper costs less than one-tenth of the price of a McDonald’s hamburger.

The Times did something else, too. It decided to be more interactive and to engage its readers in a conversation. Readers are encouraged to sen in movie reviews, for example.

However one might look at the editorial thrust of The Times of India, newspaper publishers agree on one thing: newspapers need to interact more actively with their readers. Interaction is said to be the major reason why young people prefer the Internet to newspapers. Readers want to talk back. It is a different situation from that in the newspapers where letters to the editor are only occasionally printed, always edited, and sometimes censored.

Newspapers struggling to survive are being pushed to listen more intently to what their readers have to say, particularly on the kind of news they want to read. The days when editors exerted a powerful gate-keeping function may be fast disappearing. The strongest critics of the traditional system where editors decided which stories to print and which ones to emphasize can be found among the heads of the media industry. Murdoch, in his speech before the American editors, bluntly said, ” I believe too many of us editors and reporters are out of touch with our readers. To often, the question we ask is, “Do we have the story?” rather than “Does anyone want the story? ”

A journalist and writer, Tim Porter, wrote in the Nieman Reports that “risk-averse newsrooms have spent several decades with their collective heads in the ink barrel, ignoring the changing society around them, refusing to embrace new technologies, and defensively adhering to both a rigid internal hierarchy and an inflexible definition of ‘news’ that produces a stenographic form of journalism, one that has stood still, frozen by homage to tradition, while the world has moved on.” (Porter, 2006)

Very clearly, the new technology in media is not just changing the way that news stories are being delivered but the kind of stories to be delivered as well. The features being offered by the digital medium — especially the blogs and the use of citizen journalists — may well change the very definition of what the news should be: objective, balanced, accurate, fair. The notion of what makes a story significant and therefore worthy of being given priority is also about to be shaken when journalists start giving prime importance to what readers want.

Such fears, however, are dismissed by those who think that newspapers have been reacting too slowly to changes in the media environment. Again, Murdoch chastises “reporters and editors (who) think their readers are stupid.” He warned that “newspapers whose employees look down on their readers can have no hope of ever succeeding as a business.” If Murdoch were not the owner of Fox News, his words would resonate with clarity and truth. But since he is, they give off the odor of justifying the celebrity-and entertainment-oriented news programs that his media companies are so notorious for.

In a society where the demand for entertainment often overshadows that of information, the task of newspapers becomes doubly difficult. Having to contend with space limitations, expanding readership demands, and shrinking resources, many newspapers are finding it harder to perform their traditional role as disseminators of information that readers need, although not necessarily want. Indeed, modern humans have not changed much from their forebears who, many centuries ago, found it more urgent and useful to have playing cards rather than newspapers.

More voices are needed to arrive at a definition of what journalism should be in this new age. It is not only newspapers that are about to change; very likely, journalism will, too. Whether that will be a good thing or not depends on how media owners and practitioners view their roles in society. Those who want to see newspapers survive and prosper say that more space should be given to opinions, investigative pieces, and analyses of the news– pieces that are not readily provided by the Internet or by free newspapers but are eagerly sought by the audiences of all media. With the great mass of information that is available to them, readers and viewers would need help in making sense of the news. And even as citizen journalism becomes fashionable, it is not likely to last. People would still want to be told news that is accurate. Untrained journalists are not always able to do that. The journalist of today—as well as the future —–will therefore have to be not just a good gatherer of information but also an excellent interpreter of the news.

Greater sensitivity to relevant information might also be the key to survival for newspapers. Despite the weak circulation of many newspapers that claim to be national in scope, local, or community newspapers appear to be holding their own in the face of the Internet challenge. The reason is not hard to find: local news are not usually the kind of stories that find their way to the Internet. But these are what local readers look for in their newspapers.

And while newspaper owners and print journalists become increasingly worried about the future of their medium, there are those who choose to take a step back and look at the larger picture. When talking about the survival of the newspaper, what does really want to save: the news or the paper? The medium or the content?

Even the strongest critics of journalism are adamant that its core values should remain unchanged. The Italian journalist Vittorio Sabadin, author of the book The Last Issue of the New York Times, was quite confident that journalism, just like music, will survive the disappearance of the newspaper.

“I listened to LPs in the 1970s, then I switched to CDs, and I now have an MP3 reader. Music did not die in the meantime, ” Sabadin said.

Likewise, good journalism will probably not disappear with the loss of a medium; it will just find its way in others.

 

 

References

American Society of Newspaper Editors. (2005, April 13). Speech by Rupert Murdoch to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Retrieved May 29, 2007 from

http//www.newscorp.com/news/news_247.html

Brown, M. (2005, Spring). Abandoning the news. The Carnegie Reporter 3 (2).

Dhariwal, R. (2007). The brand positioning of The Times of India. Speech delivered during the Publish Asia 2007 Forum in Manila, March 27-28, 2007.

Estella, C. (2006, November). Will there be newspapers tomorrow? PJR Reports, pp. 17-19.

Gunaratne, S.A. (2001). Paper, Printing and the Printing Press. London: Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Macale, H.B.L. (2006, August). The Free Papers are Here. PJR Reports, pp. 8-10.

Readership declining, say Philippine news dealers. (2007). In Newswatch India. Retrieved April 9, 2007 from http://www.newswatch.in

Oldest newspaper in the world gets digitized. (2007, March 27-28). All About Newspapers (Publish Asia Special).

Porter, T. (2006, Spring). If newspapers are to rise again. Nieman Reports.

Schantin, D. (2007). A strategy for integrated newsrooms. Speech delivered during the Publish Asia 2007 Forum in Manila, March 27-28, 2007.

Wilkinson, E.J. (2007). Eyeballs and audiences: Ideas and trends worldwide. A speech delivered during the Publish Asia 2007.

Forum in Manila, March 27-28, 2007. Sabadin, Vittorio, (2007). The last issue of the New York Times: The book. Retrieved April 9, 2007 from http://www.editorsweblog.org

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* Chit Estella-Simbulan, who writes professionally as Chit Estella, was editor in chief of PJR Reports, published by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

 

 

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