Read all about it…

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.”

Brian Keeley

2 comments to “Read all about it…”

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  1. Baye Kambui - 21/06/2010 Reply

    Based on some of the countries we’re talking about, low levels of internet penetration would play a strong role in the perceived value of newspapers. China and India quickly come to mind. However, that would not explain the dense circulation numbers in the relatively broadband-rich Northern European nations.

    Countries similar to the U.S. business model for newspapers will be in trouble. U.S. advertisers heavily subsidized the cost of newspapers to make the publications highly affordable (if not free) for consumers. Such back-door subsidies create a highly biased view among consumers with respect to the value of newspapers (“News is great, but you want us to pay for it?”). And then we have that slightly disturbing trend of Americans reading less these days…

    The sad reality for many newspapers is that they will need think about operating on a smaller scale. Those large newspapers thinking about moving to a pure web model will find they will not not offset their legacy costs in most instances. Meanwhile, new journalism models will be born without the high legacy costs of running their businesses.

    I wrote a lengthy post about this in another channel, but I will briefly say that journalists should reconsider viewing bloggers as competition. The two entities can peacefully coexist – even in the same publication…

    song currently stuck in my head: “telephone” – erykah badu

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