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Newspapers are dying: Advertisers fled during the recession and haven’t come back, and readers now turn to the Internet – not inky pages of newsprint – to find out what’s going on. This accepted wisdom has become so pervasive it even has its own website.
But are rumours of the newspaper’s demise premature? A new report from the OECD suggests that – for all the challenges – there may be life in the old medium yet.
Admittedly, the picture for traditional newspapers – paid-for and not given away – looks gloomy in the OECD area. Between 2000 and 2008, their circulation fell in most OECD. But against that, circulation expanded strongly in some emerging economies – by 45% in India and 34% in South Africa. Indeed, despite all the gloom, circulation actually rose globally between 2000 and 2008.
Paid for dailies average total daily circulation (2000-08, in millions)
Still, there’s no question that the traditional news business is facing challenges, especially in developed countries, with large falls in advertising revenue and circulation income, most notably in the United States.
Can the news business reinvent itself? As The Economist reports, in some ways it already has: “Newspapers are becoming more distinctive and customer-focused. Rather than trying to bring the world to as many readers as possible, they are carving out niches.” And as James Fallows recently reported in The Atlantic, technologies like Google that seem to threaten the news business may actually help to save it.
There has also been much discussion of whether governments could do more to support newspapers. Some countries already support the press financially, by subsidising printing and distribution, for example, or providing tax breaks. Doing more is an option but it would clearly raise serious questions over press freedom from state control. And clinging to newspapers as the only way to save journalism could be a dangerous strategy.
As Sacha Wunsch-Vincent, who prepared the OECD report, told The New York Times, “policy initiatives focused on salvaging traditional newspapers will fail to address” the bigger question of how to safeguard high-quality journalism. That distinction – between journalism and the newspapers that carry it – will surely become ever more important in the emerging media landscape.
However, as the OECD report points out, while new models of newsgathering and delivery hold plenty of promise, there are also potential perils: “One extreme is that online and other new forms of more decentralised news will finally liberate readers from partisan news monopolies. … The other extreme is that the demise of the traditional news media is before us (partially caused by the rise of the Internet) and with it an important foundation for democratic societies is at risk.”