Newspapers are widely held to be in serious crisis. In the West, the rise of online news and new ways of presenting information have changed the economics of newspaper publishing. The global financial crisis and the associated downturn in print advertising spending has exacerbated the economic difficulties confronting the industry.
The crisis has been felt most painfully in the United States, where even as online audiences grow, print circulation and advertising revenue are in decline. In 2011, losses in print advertising dollars outpaced gains in digital revenue by a factor of roughly 10 to one, a ratio worse than in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center.
When circulation and ad revenue are combined, the US newspaper industry has shrunk 43 per cent since 2000. It’s estimated the number of journalists in daily newspapers has dropped from 56,000 in 2001 to 40,000 in 2009.
Nicholas Lemann, Dean and Professor of Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, told New Matilda employment in original reporting has fallen sharply and many things don’t get covered.
"Bloggers and citizen journalists do not work as a replacement for vanished reporters because they can’t go and cover city hall and so on. So that is a real problem."
The issue for newspapers is not that print editions are losing money but that digital editions are not making money.
"All these folks, if you talked to them 15 years ago many of them were saying ‘hey I’d love not to publish a newspaper and just be a news organisation that’s just online’ but what’s kept them from doing that is the lack of a business model," Lehmann said.
The industry has stabilised after the steep declines in economic fortunes and staff cuts from 2005 to 2010, "so there’s some feeling that newspapers may actually survive at a much lower level of staffing and economic prosperity than existed before."
Lehmann believes print editions will survive but won’t be growing in circulation, with many places considering printing three or four days a week.
However, Professor Robert Picard, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, counters that there are still plenty of journalists in the US and UK.
"The question is not how many total there are but what you do with the ones you have," he told NM. "We are not seeing any cutback in entertainment coverage, in chasing celebrities and so yes they’ve cut back on investigative but it’s the editors who are making these decisions by choosing to still emphasise these other issues. So the capacity to do good journalism is still there but it’s a question of whether the editors will allocate the resources to do so."
Picard said that newspapers have to ask themselves why are they still staffing at high levels but not attracting readers. There needs to be a fundamental rethinking of the newspaper.
Rasmus Nielsen, Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute, maintains that a younger generation have grown up accustomed to the idea that news is free.
"And in particular among younger people, there’s been a large substitution of the printed product for newspapers towards the digital part of the newspapers, so it’s not that people don’t read newspapers any more it’s just that more and more young people read them online, and the economics of online publishing are not very good."
Newspapers make about a tenth from digital readers as what they do from print readers, he said. According to the Newspaper Association of America, a print reader is worth an average of about US$539 in advertising alone, while an average online reader is worth a paltry US$26.
In the United Kingdom, where newspapers are less dependent on advertising revenue than their trans-Atlantic counterparts, the effects have been less marked but still considerable.
While the West is in decline, the East rises. Newspaper markets in China and India are booming, fuelled by strong economic growth and demand from an emerging urban and literate middle class enjoying higher incomes and rising standards of living.
In China, newspapers have evolved from the "tongue and throat" of the Communist Party to being commercialised. Government policy to loosen up private investment into media has also helped growth in newspapers, as has urbanisation which has enlarged readership.
Picard sees the growth as a good development.
"Even though newspapers in China will not challenge the Party, they are asking lots of questions, they are serving a role against corruption, they are pushing the boundaries in the way China handles things like disasters and so they are a force for change." He believes China is more open than it was 30 years ago as a result.
In India, the masses lifted out of poverty now have money to spend and start to buy newspapers. The newspaper is an urban middle class phenomenon, Nielsen told NM.
"So when you have a situation like India where you have sustained economic growth combined with political decisions that mean millions of people join the middle class and also millions learn to read in countries that are democracies in which to be a full citizen there is an expectation that you stay at least somewhat informed about public affairs, beginning to buy newspapers become a more attractive proposition for the individual citizen."
India has also witnessed the growth of a popular vernacular press; partly about entertainment, scandal, gossip and sports but also with coverage of public affairs. While not a development that serves all the functions of the fourth estate, it’s a development that supplements what the Indian media has offered to citizens in the past.
The sun rises in the East and sets in the West for newspapers. Yet this is no time for fatalism or simplistic predictions of the "death of the newspaper" with the internet cast as the chief villain.
Newspapers will continue to exist, but may print on fewer days and with reduced circulation. These are the best and worst of times for newspapers: buffeted by the digital revolution and the rise of online news yet with a unique opportunity to reinvent themselves — this has never been more important considering the vital role journalism plays in society. The challenge is not to replace the business of journalism but to renew it so it can survive and prosper in the digital age.
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