Reinventing News Media: Future Forward!
Newspapers are struggling, social media is taking over and every outfit is cutting costs - but what of the future?
The news is confused. It used to be very simple - media barons owned newspapers, news agencies supplied them with international stories and employed journalists focused on factual news that their readers most desired - you know, like Johnny Depp and Amber Heard on a boozy night out.
Your daily paper used to be delivered to newsstands or flung at high velocity towards your doorstep, taking out the dog on the way. Today there’s a computer game for that! Printing papers and magazines was an art form. We paid a small amount of cash for our news and didn’t mind the advertising. In fact, some of it, we quite enjoyed.
Then the internet changed everything.
CNN ripped it from the exclusive preserve of print papers and magazines with its 24 hour cable TV news and other news networks followed. Following this, the internet came along and news became commoditized. Anyone could report anything on their own (Facebook, Instagram, Wordpress), and anyone could publish on community publications like Medium and Reddit.
Since then, trust in news sources has plummeted. Today only a quarter of Americans trust the media. The highest level of trust (58%) is with national news and the lowest with social media news. Yet nearly half of Facebook users source their news from the platform.
As a result newspapers got squeezed. In the US in 2020 employees in the newspaper industry numbered 30,820 workers, less than half the 74,410 in 2006. Sadly, the employment number has fallen every year since then. Pew reports in 2020 a third of all newspapers had laid off employees compared to 24% in 2019. In addition, at 55%, larger newspapers (Sunday circulation greater than 250,000) were more likely to have layoffs than smaller newspapers.
And newspapers keep closing.
According to a report from Poynter, with the pandemic, 85 local newsrooms in America were permanently shut. According to Penny Abernathy, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, these closures follow a grim trend. Since 2004, there have been about 1,800 newspapers that have been shut down, most of them (1,700) were weeklies. Since 2004 on average 100 newspapers have been closing each year. There are now around 7,000 newspapers still publishing, a large majority (over 80%) being weeklies that are located primarily in small and rural areas with a circulation under 15,000.
Local newspapers are dropping like dodo’s. In the US two thirds of counties no longer have a daily newspaper! Barren (not Barrons) indeed. 200 of them have no local newspapers at all. Half the counties have only one newspaper - usually weekly. The loss of newspapers equates to a cavernous loss of community information and opposing perspectives which are sorely needed in a divided political landscape. Without it you get, well, less than genius policies squeaking through the abyss. A bit like Liz Truss.
Print circulation across the board keeps dropping - by around 5% per annum and digital subscriptions and adverts, while holding things together, for now, are not enough to make up for the steady decline. As a result newspaper owners keep consolidating. And consolidation can remove choice, talent and ultimately concentrate too much media control into too few hands. Hands of slight?
The 25 largest US publishers’ control about one-third of all newspapers, up from 20% in 2004 including two thirds of all daily newspapers. Half of all newspapers have changed ownership in the past fifteen years. The ten largest newspaper owners control half the daily papers in the country. Spelling potential death spirals for the industry.
Things have got so bad that the US government is considering legislation to provide subsidies for the local news industry and its consumers. What?
As local news wilted readers naturally turned to social media news with all its lack of regulations, quality and fact checking. A place where fake news and extreme views can reach further and faster than ever before.
The polarisation of news has become quite widespread in the western world, with the US and the UK having the worst of it, and parts of Northern Europe less so. But the perception of polarisation in news has been increasing in various countries across the world. It could be that as new digital news outlets emerge they increase this polarisation. After all, it can be easier to drive clicks with extreme positions than factual, balanced long reads. Which is hack for, if in doubt scream it out!
There is growing concern that the continued trend toward hollowing out of news rooms and quality journalists could permanently and irrevocably erode cultural and political information.
National media has not fared much better than local news. UK national newspaper sales have fallen by nearly two-thirds over the last two decades, according to analysis of ABC circulation data by Press Gazette.
The figure shows the extent of the devastation that digital disruption has wrought on the traditional print-centric newspaper business model. In January 2000, 16 daily and Sunday paid-for national newspapers had a combined circulation of 21.2 million, according to ABC figures.
Within ten years this had fallen to 16.4 million among 17 newspapers – now including the Daily Star Sunday, which launched in 2002 – representing a drop of nearly a quarter. According to the latest circulation figures available, the same group of newspapers sold a total of 7.4 million copies – a fall of 55% within ten years.
To navigate this terminal decline the industry has had to resort to increasingly desperate measures - clickbait, dark arts and gossip gradually replacing real news. Headlines can be somewhat removed from the story - who cares what the story is so long as someone clicks into the article. Headlines sell papers baby! Mind you, the majority of supposed ‘news’ is press releases penned by corporate PR people and not journalists who, at best, only have time for a bit of light editing.
And yet it feels like we have to pay more for news today with a growing number of newspapers adding online paywalls. Some charging a small fortune - thank you FT! More than two-thirds of leading newspapers (69%) across the EU and US are operating some kind of online paywall, a trend that has increased since 2017, especially in the US where this has increased from 60% to 76%. A fifth of Americans pay for news today with the most paid for topic being international news.
However, fears about paywalls limiting access to online news can be a little ‘overblown’, according to a study of over 200 news outlets across seven countries, with hard paywalls that completely restrict access to non-fee payers being very rare. With almost all television organisations and digital-born media offering free access to online news, a majority of all news outlets studied are available at no cost.
And yet something seems to be broken - beyond repair?
The quality, openness and balanced choice of news sources seems to be declining. Perhaps the entire model needs to be turned upside down. After all, the cost of producing news in the current mode does not seem to quite add up. And death by a thousand cuts is still ‘certain death’.
Perhaps there could be a new approach - fusing the best of citizen journalism with all the benefits of professional journalism. With boots on the ground getting funded in an entirely different way.
After all generation Z, who are growing up fast and permeating most workplaces, are not attached to traditional news media like their predecessors. They get their news from their connections on Telegram, Snapchat, WhatsApp and TikTok. They are in tune with fragmented media from all kinds of disparate news sources, formal and informal - so long as it is digital. Step aside New York Times!
The printing press probably needs to get dumped once and for all so that 100% of the industry’s increasingly cash constrained investments and focus can go into the future - which is digital. Newspapers, like news networks should probably figure out how to provide mixed media content for the news they provide their subscribers - articles, podcasts, TV and even games. And make it more informal and communal - you know, a bit less like working in the civil service while watching the BBC.
According to Statista, News consumption among audiences in the United States now most commonly occurs online, with social media the go-to option for many. In fact, data from a 2021 survey found that close to 48 percent of U.S. adults used social media for news often or semi-regularly. Using social networks to keep up to date is a habit often associated with Gen Z and millennials, but this is changing. Now, older consumers are also demonstrating a preference for social platforms over legacy news media.
Before we step into the metaverse and things get really messed up, the news organisations of today will have to get up to speed with the current technologies. For national news organisations that means completing the transition to paid subscribers behind a paywall. For local news providers it means consolidating around advanced digital platforms with wider capabilities.
As mobile phones and tablets become ever more powerful anyone can capture news at source, and someone will figure out how to better organise, pay for and distribute these micro news opportunities. A citizen journalist producing intriguing content still needs to get paid and pronto. At the same time, professional freelance and independent journalists are seeking greater independence. The combination could prove to be quite powerful.
And as machine intelligence continues to advance, alongside new payment systems and mechanisms - new revenue streams could open up. The tokenization of content has just begun. And pay per article and advanced, auto news bundling will likely emerge.
Perhaps the newspaper publisher of tomorrow will be skinnier than ever - utilising advanced technologies, payment methods and content advances such as gaming, AI and the metaverse in ways we could not have imagined before. These techno news operations might be less a place for full time journalists to write and more a place designed to source, combine and package outsourced content from an endless spigot of structured news that flows into the editorial teams from all kinds of places - meta-tagged like a firefly on crack!
So long as these new advances make news more accurate, inclusive, community driven, local, timely and cost efficient then there is hope. If new approaches also make news less partisan and more open - then the most worrying of all trends - which is the concentration of ever more news in fewer, perhaps more sinister hands - could change once and for all.
News drives community and informed, educated citizens. It also spurs politics, perspective and conversation. Some believe that it is the lifeblood of society. Surely our news is due a major reinvention. This time with the journalist, the creator and the reader at its core.
Perhaps we should call time on old fashioned news from ageing news barons squeezing out the last bit of profit, partisanship and gossip for the highest bidder, driving us into an endless cycle of inertia and introspection.
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