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.