State of the media: Christina Stucky – a former journalist (who worked in South Africa from 1994 to 2007) turned media and journalism trainer who is now based in Switzerland and runs workshops in Europe, Africa and Asia – gives the international perspective in the first of a four-part series on state of the media that was first published in The Media magazine.
While newspaper readership has been on a downward trend in Europe and the USA, it has been increasing steadily in most parts of Africa and Asia in recent years. Both sets of circumstances are not necessarily good news for the quality of journalism.
The financial crisis, combined with competition from the Internet and free newspapers, has led to drops of -3.7% and -1.9% in newspaper circulation in the USA and Europe respectively. Meanwhile, rising wealth and literacy rates have created more readers in Africa and Asia. In India and Pakistan, newspaper sales increased by up to 35% in the last five years; in China, by about 20%. New newspapers have been appearing in countries like Rwanda.
In the north, the demise of newspapers has been predicted for decades – and for decades most newspapers have managed to survive, adapt and find ways to continue, at least in Europe. This survival came at the cost of stringent economic measures: many long-established newspapers in Europe and the USA have had to make serious cutbacks, leading to staff retrenchments, overall spending cuts and the closure of foreign bureaux.
In a ‘the glass is half full’ move, Gavin O’Reilly – president of the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers – cited statistics from the WAN’s World Press Trends in a speech in 2009:
- 1.9 billion people read a paid daily paper every day
- many European countries continue to reach over 70% of the adult population with paid newspapers
- newspapers reach 41% more adults than the Internet, and more adults read a newspaper every day than people eat a Big Mac.
What none of the numbers do, though, is speak to the quality of the journalism in those newspapers that are popping up in the south, and in those papers that are surviving in the north.
While long-standing, ‘serious’ (for want of a better word) European newspapers have managed to hold on, the biggest sellers across most of Europe are tabloids: tendentious and sensationalist papers like Bild in Germany, The Sun in the United Kingdom, or Blick in Switzerland and its sister Blesk in the Czech Republic.
Free newspapers are also having a significant effect on the newspaper market. According to WAN, free daily papers account for about 8% of all global newspaper circulation, and almost 32% in Europe alone. Surveyed Scandinavian editors of paid newspapers considered free newspapers, and not the Internet, to be their biggest competition. Many European readers and editors argue that the threat is not only to their revenues, but also to quality journalism as a whole.
In several European countries, free newspapers with their short, superficially researched and populist articles are blamed for ‘dumbing down’ readers, and for eroding quality journalism by causing paid newspapers to adopt some of the free papers’ style of reporting in order to pander to their enviably large readerships.
In the south, other factors affect the quality of journalism, both in new and old publications. During an annual ‘ethics and accuracy’ workshop for business journalists from Africa and Asia in Berlin, a majority of the participants mentioned some form of ‘brown envelope journalism’. An Indonesian journalist said she tried to decline the envelope (a cash payment by an organisation to ensure positive coverage), but that her peers criticised her for not taking the money. Nigerian and East African journalists are routine targets of such cash bribes, which are also common in China and Russia. Equally common are the publishing of paid material as ‘news’ content, inaccurate reporting or quoting, and one-source stories.
The real problem is that most of the journalists do not regard such practises as questionable, nor do they consider how they affect the quality and reputation of journalism.
What are the consequences of these developments in both the north and the south? Growing scepticism among media consumers who wonder whose news values lie behind news content; critical attitudes towards the veracity of what they read; creeping doubts that they are getting the full, balanced picture. This is one trend all media professionals across the globe should worry about.