Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Karl du Fresne: Are we really witnessing the last days of newspapers?



Back in the 1990s when I was working for Wellington’s now-defunct Evening Post, we experienced a series of printing press breakdowns which meant the paper was repeatedly late coming out. I recall an unusual sight as I drove home late in the afternoons. Along the streets leading to my house, people were standing at their gates gazing along the footpath to see whether the paper was on its way. It was striking to see how keenly people anticipated their paper each day and how discombobulated they were when it didn’t arrive on time.  

I thought of this recently as I read a book on the state of the New Zealand and Australian newspaper industries. Stop Press: The Last Days of Newspapers was written by New Zealand journalist Rachel Buchanan, who has worked for papers on both sides of the Tasman. It’s a pessimistic title – some would say unduly so. But there’s no doubt newspapers are going through a period of unprecedented upheaval and no one quite knows where or how it’s going to end.
Certainly the book has the tone of an obituary, even though the death hasn’t occurred yet. One or two senior newspaper executives quoted in the book clearly have no time for prophets of doom. Buchanan quotes New Zealander Campbell Reid, editorial director of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, as saying: “Those in the newspaper and journalism profession that talk themselves into their funeral will get no help from me. They should shut up and retire and wander off in disgrace and let the next generation get on with it.”

The future of journalism, Reid insists, “is literally at our fingertips every single day courtesy of the information revolution”.

That’s bold talk. A cynic might observe that Reid has no option but to sound bullish, given his position. He has to believe in the revolution. Certainly I’ve heard lots of similar talk over the past couple of years from cheerleaders for online media, and it’s only fair to acknowledge that my own gloomy view of the industry, although widely shared within journalism, is hotly contested by some.

They may be right. We shall see.

What we can say with certainty is that the revolution Reid speaks of has transformed the print media. Whether it’s for better or for worse is a matter of fierce debate. I fall into the pessimist camp, but I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

We can also say that no matter how much we might wish to, we can’t turn the clock back to the halcyon days before the worldwide web transformed the newspaper business.

That was the era when newspapers effectively had a monopoly on printed information. If you wanted to know what was happening in the world, around New Zealand or in your community, you read the paper.

Television and radio provided competition of sorts, but couldn’t match the print medium for depth or breadth of coverage.

Newspapers set the journalism agenda, breaking virtually all the big stories. They were able to do so because they had more reporters on the ground. And the reason they could afford to employ lots of journalists is that they made healthy profits through advertising.

Classified advertising in particular – by which I mean all those small-print ads for jobs, cars, real estate, second-hand goods and so forth – generated so much revenue that it gave birth to the phrase “rivers of gold”.

Alas, the rivers of gold began to dry up the moment the Internet made it possible for people to advertise more cheaply and efficiently online. Arguably the two most lethal words in the history of New Zealand newspapers were Trade Me.

The digital revolution had another consequence which, even if it couldn’t have been avoided altogether, might have been a lot less damaging had the newspaper industry reacted differently.

I believe that newspaper owners, panicked by predictions that the mainstream media was headed for obsolescence, committed a potentially fatal strategic error by making all their content available free online.

The theory was that advertising would follow, but it didn’t – at least, not to anything like the extent that would be necessary for newspaper websites to be profitable.

We’re now left with a situation in which newspaper publishers have diverted journalistic resources away from their traditional core product in pursuit of what may be an illusory holy grail. The fact that they haven’t yet worked out how to make money in this brave new world doesn’t seem to have dimmed their faith.

If we are indeed observing the last days of newspapers, as Buchanan argues, then I fear the industry may have hastened its own demise.

What’s more, I believe newspaper owners have compounded their mistake by pandering to the capricious online grazer – the Facebook generation – over the habitual newspaper reader, who tends to be older and more loyal.

A new type of journalism has evolved to cater to this new market. The flag-bearers for this new journalism tend to be dismissive of what they call “legacy” journalism, which is their disparaging term for dreary stuff about matters of public interest. What attracts website traffic is titillating stories about celebrities, scandal, political conflict, gossip, crime and controversy.

In the newspaper industry, such stories are known as clickbait. The objective is to attract as many “clicks” as possible from browsing readers, thereby bumping up readership figures.

Meanwhile, having belatedly woken up to the fact that the online business model is seriously flawed, publishers are exploring ways of introducing paywalls, whereby readers will have to pay for online access.

Admittedly hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but shouldn’t they have done this from the outset? Good journalism costs money; making it available free of charge was suicidal.

Will paywalls work? I’m sceptical. Now that online readers are in the habit of getting access for nothing, it may be an uphill battle persuading them to pay.

But back to Buchanan’s book. It’s an affectionate, nostalgic and ultimately sad portrait of an industry struggling to adapt in a fast-changing environment. Though often witty, the book’s dominant tone is one of impending loss.

Newspapers are a defining feature of an informed, literate and engaged society. Sir Bob Jones acknowledged this in a recent column in the New Zealand Herald in which he wrote: “Nothing matches the daily newspaper for sheer stimulation, education and entertainment value for money.”

I’ve spent my working life in the newspaper business, but until I saw all those people standing at their gates waiting for the Evening Post, even I didn’t grasp how important the daily paper was in people’s lives. My concern now is that we won’t realise how much we stand to lose until it’s too late. 

Karl du Fresne blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz

6 comments:

Dave said...

Having worked in senior roles in commercial radio for 37 years then for APN over the last 4 years before being made redundant, I agree the last days of the print newspaper are upon us. The biggest impact has been the internet and availability of instant news, that has been the death neal for Print. Compounded by the drive by senior management to cut costs and therefore the quality of journalism in particular. For Radio the demise started in 1987 with the Governments mad scramble to sell all available frequency's for whatever in a mad scramble to raise revenue. In the process it destroyed particularly local radio stations who up until that time had provided quality programming and employment. Even small provincial markets went from one or two strong local stations to now over 15 or 20 stations, far to many to make it viable for the locally owned operators. Now just about everything comes out of Auckland and automation means you rarely listen to 'live' radio at all. The cynic would say it was inevitable with the impending electronic change, maybe so but the impact could have been much less if it hadn't been a wholesale fire sale.
The big mistake the print media have made is providing free on line versions of their papers, now that's the norm the public will never accept paying for an on line subscription. Print needs advertising to make a profit and on line publications are not very effective for the advertisers.

Mark Roden said...

Agree 100%. I've worked in the newspaper industry most of my life and was shocked by the total lack of commitment shown by the big newspaper owners.
At least rats wait until the ship is sinking before jumping, these guys leapt out of a fully functioning floating vessel - in that regard they only have themselves to blame.
It's been a downward spiral, as the content quality has dropped, so has readership and of course ad revenue.

paul scott said...

When I travel, I search out the newspapers relentlessly. To get the Bangkok Times in Thailand I have to make special arrangements and pay ahead. In Australia I am out there hunting down the 'Australian', or on a bad day the 'Courier Post'
Here I have to put up with the parochial Christchurch Press, and if it came to the point I would pay a lot more.
I don't know what would happen if the Press put the price up to say $NZ 3

Sharyn said...

I used to receive two newspapers - one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Now they both come together with the rural mail about midday. A cost cutting exercise which will result in my cancelling one of them.
I used to really enjoy reading the newspapers, but now they make me really angry. Their content is so similar, obviously copied from the same source.
I hate it when reporters go to face book and twitter and use the inane comments of people at random as padding for their story.
Worst of all, todays newspapers are mouthpieces for the UN, and actively suppress comment and discussion when adverse views are expressed. Here I'm referring to the New World Order and the global warming fraud. Complete and utter nonsense about sea level rise. ocean acidification,melting polar ice caps, missing heat in the sea. The list goes on. The Waikato Times, two years ago, made an editorial announcement that they would no longer print sceptical letters. It seems that this has become the norm. Even the farming newspapers have fallen silent. The effect is chilling and gives the impression that we all are singing from the same song page. Censorship like this has an unintended consequence because there has been an extraordinary development that is not being reported. A cooling climate has been inexorably taking over un noticed. Are we aware that thousands of new cold records were set in 2013? America has been
particularly effected, with severe drought as well. The Arctic
summer sea ice for 2013 recorded a 50% increase compared to the year before. The Antarctic sea ice extent started 2013 at well-above- average, and then set a new 34-year sea record during October.This 34 year cooling trend has resulted in Commonwealth
Bay remaining full of ice until late February for the last three years. We only found out about that when the ship of climate fools got trapped in the ice. We have had a cold summer and the Waikato is suffering a severe drought. As is parts of Australia. This is caused by the cold sea water, the weaker sun,the moon being closer to the equater and the SOI falling during February. A cold sea leads to drought conditions. All this would make interesting news if only some reporter would write about it.
Personally I'm bored by the propaganda of the left. I'm sick of hearing about sustainability and dialectic materialism and saving the environment for our grandchildren.
Newspapers will die and they will only have themselves to blame. I"ll miss the paper, though, when I need to light a fire to keep me warm when the big freeze comes.

Anonymous said...

If the NZ Herald is anything to go by, they are as good as dead! With so much gossip filling the new format, allied with daily mention of hyped-up nonsense connected with non-existent global warming, I now buy it only for the Codecracker Crossword. How much longer will I be prepared to over-pay for it? Not long, I suspect!

Denis McCarthy said...

Some of us out here still want access to newspapers which provide news and comment in depth.
There's not much available in New Zealand.

I am happy to pay a subscription to the Online Australian and also view the online (British) Telegraph whose columnists are well worth following. The Telegraph is free to view at the moment.

We accept that we have to pay for food for the body - is it such a step to pay for food for the mind - quality newspapers?
I suggest not.