The future of newspapers is under threat but what can be done to rescue them? Tanya Farber talks to industry experts to find out there views on the current state of play.
As often as we hear about the death knell of newspapers, the predicted ‘event’ has been far from the dramatic bloody scene that journalists themselves so often crave when trying to create a sensation. It has, instead, been ‘a tragedy’ in slow motion, replete with falling circulation figures, diminishing ad spend and audiences changing allegiance with one click of the mouse.
With ‘the victim’ not quite writhing on the floor just yet, enter ‘the saviour’ – new business models that can sweep newspapers to safety.
Professor Harry Dugmore of the Rhodes University Journalism and Media Studies department highlights the speed at which the ways in which news is disseminated is changing.
“I think newspapers throughout the world are trying to grapple with transition to digital media and the exponential speed at which devices are becoming so much more powerful and connectivity so much faster and cheaper,” he says, “People are doing things that were unimaginable not so long ago.”
He says the capacity doubles every 18 months or so, and the need for newspapers to adapt their modus operandi and embrace new business models is crucial.
In the international arena, some innovative approaches are already in full swing. Locally, we are still navigating our way through a complex set of variables, where some have ditched papers for digital media while others – lured by the daily dose of tabloid ‘treats’ – have only started reading any newspapers at all in the past few years.
It seems that editors, analysts and managers alike agree that the local newspaper industry – particularly the older broadsheet titles – will continue to see diminishing circulation figures unless a radical ‘thinking out the box’ shift happens.
Ray Hartley, editor of the Sunday Times, points to a change in the relationship between those on the editorial floor and those selling the audiences to advertisers, as well as the challenges that this poses.
“I think editors have to be open to listening to creative ideas from sales staff who are trying to attract revenue,” he says, “We need to always ask ourselves if creative advertising placements will damage the newspapers editorial reputation or not. The news can’t be compromised by product placement, but it would be wrong to think that every suggestion that comes out of advertising is inherently damaging.”
Dugmore says that if advertorial “is not clearly labelled as such, and comes across as an unspoken endorsement, you are on a slippery slope in terms of ethics”, but, he adds, “there is definitely a need for editorial staff to work much more closely with people who want to access the audiences. We are used to just putting in an advert on a page, but now we need to help the people who are selling those things to do just that”.
But, cautions Hartley, “Electronic media is sometimes willing to sacrifice editorial independence to attract revenue, and it would be a mistake for newspapers to go down that road. Readers trust newspaper staff to be doing their best to tell a story without being influenced by its revenue implications.”
Hoosain Karjieker, CEO of the Mail & Guardian who is also president of Print Media South Africa, doesn’t view digital and traditional media as being in competition with one another if media owners can harness both.
“Instead,” he says, “while we continue to have low interconnectivity (with internet penetration at just 10%) and high broadband costs, traditional and digital media will serve each other as consumers continue to grow their platform usage.”
He points out that the industry is still reliant on legacy media for nearly 90% of its income but that as readership evolves across a multitude of platforms, media owners will have to invest in these newer models in order to add value to their content proposition.
And editors have to be on board with this. “I have always felt that newspaper editors should be in possession of an MBA qualification,” he says.
He predicts other components of these models. “Content providers will sell subscriptions to loyal readers who will increase the number of platforms to which they subscribe (like iPad, Kindle and mobi); newspaper sites will glean additional incomes from digital malls that use transactional advertising to sell content, games, music and other retail goods and services; and choice will be the currency that builds communities, and monetising through these communities is the way media will grow in the future.”
In talking of communities, he is echoing a trend that already has legs in the United States. Harvard University’s Nieman Reports recently put this in black and white: “The new business model for news and journalism is beckoning from every site that seeks first and foremost to build a community.”
It says that rapid growth results come from network effects, where each new user makes the service more valuable for everyone else.
“To harness this model,” the report says, “news organisations need to think of themselves first as gathering, supporting and empowering people to be active in a community with shared values, and not primarily as creators of news that people will consume.”
Hopefully, more South African media owners will heed the call.
When it comes to the paywall model, an example was set by the New York Times last year when it started charging a premium for any reader who had gone over a certain number of ‘free’ online articles per month, Dugmore says it is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
“I think throughout the world, paywalls work specifically when there is priority content that people really need,” he says, “so for The Wall Street Journal, people will pay a premium for business-centred information, but for general content, it is not viable.”
And, he adds, that goes for newspaper too. “There is still the classic value of content,” he says, citing the Mail & Guardian as a paper that the “political class in SA” cannot afford to miss every week.
But then, that content has to be somewhat unique and not just written to a high standard.
This story was first published in a special supplement on Newspapers that formed part of The Media magazine’s March 2012 edition.