Stop the Presses?

 
 

In investigating what looks like an inevitable evolution, Roberta Cappieri and Sarah Doran discover that the future of print journalism is more than simply black and white

In April of this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that in the face of sliding sales, the print media faced an increasingly uncertain future. “Newspaper circulation has been ebbing slowly for decades” the article stated, “but the pace has picked up of late, as more readers turn to a range of digital media such as the Web, smartphones and the iPad.”

As technology continuously advances and consumers embrace the rapid evolution of an ever-expanding array of gadgetry which delivers instant information, how will the print media fare in a furiously paced future?

“There will be no media consumption left in ten years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything gets delivered in an electronic form,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer claimed in the Washington Post in 2008.

Two years later, Ballmer’s predictions of the demise of the print media remain relevant. There’s no doubting it, newspaper sales are falling year after year. The advent of online news sources has pushed the boundaries of how we obtain information, but does it spell the end for traditional print media? Internet enabled mobiles phones, broadband and instant social media and network sites give us a connection to every other internet-user round the clock.

With the emergence of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and the explosion of online interaction through activities such blogging and v-logging, a different form of media has emerged: media which engages. Online interaction has indicated that the public are no longer content to allow the latest information to trickle down through the terrestrial channels. They are eager to seek out the story themselves.

As the demand for instant information increases, consumers turn their backs on that which is not at their fingertips. Through smartphones, netbooks and computers, access to the information superhighway has never been more simple or convenient. The traditional trek to the local newsagents on a Sunday morning for the paper has been replaced by the leisurely task of reaching for the nearest keyboard or keypad.

The ability to access information in this manner has lead to a decrease in newspaper circulation figures worldwide. In Ireland alone, Audit Bureau of Circulation figures released in August 2010 showed that in the daily market, the leading newspaper, the Irish Independent was down 4.8 per cent on the same period a year ago.

Circulation of The Irish Times fell by 7.6 per cent to 105,742, while the Irish Examiner dropped 7.3 per cent to 46,687, according to the figures. In the United Kingdom the Sunday newspapers took a particularly powerful hit: titles such as the Sunday Times, Telegraph, Herald, Independent on Sunday and The Observer experienced a circulation decrease of 12.84 per cent on average when compared to the same period in 2009. This decline in circulation doesn’t paint a positive picture of the future of print media.

Moreover, newspapers typically get between 70 and 80 per cent of their revenue from advertising. As sales fall, online advertising is seen as a more attractive alternative for companies. Advertisers will always follow the crowd, and websites give access to very specific demographics, thus lessening wasted advertising. If newspapers cannot keep circulation high, they will potentially lose that 70 to 80 per cent of revenue, thus forcing downsizing and closures.

It could be suggested that this is hardly surprising considering newspapers are often beaten to the story by this new interactive form of media. On this point, we must investigate the growth of instant social network sites such as Twitter and online news sources such as thejournal.ie and TMZ.

Twitter is a worldwide real-time information sharing network. It has created a platform for regular people to update the world on what is happening in their lives. Where journalists seek to find stories, Twitter has already been used to get the breaking news, whatever it may be, out onto the world wide web.

Twitter and sites like it are not only beating newspapers, but TV and radio also to the latest stories around the globe. In June 2009, American celebrity news website TMZ was the first to break the news of the death of Michael Jackson. News bulletins worldwide based their reports on the claims of TMZ: the world knew Jackson was dead long before any form of print media could break the story.

Similarly with Twitter, it was via tweeting that Irish broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan referred to the death of her colleague Gerry Ryan, before the authorities at RTÉ could confirm that Ryan’s extended family had been informed. At about 2.40pm on June 30th, O’Callaghan responded to unconfirmed reports about Ryan’s death on Twitter, the social networking site. “Tragically it is true,” she said. “So terribly shocking and sad. Life is just too cruel sometimes. RIP.”

As with Jackson, the nation mourned long before the story could hit the headlines. The pace of print paled in the face of interactive media such as Twitter, TMZ and BreakingNews.ie and arguably continues to do so.

So, realistically, has the evolution of a technologically-focused generation truly escalated the demise of print journalism? Or, can the print media learn to adapt and evolve in an almost Darwinian fashion in order to challenge its competitors and ensure its survival in the modern world?

The current economic climate is less than favourable for the survival of the print media: the economic downturn has inevitably lead to a decline in newspaper sales and subscriptions and has forced publishers to slash their advertising budgets.

The Federation of German Newspaper Publishers told German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle that “over the course of 2009, the advertising market in regional daily newspapers dwindled by 12.1 per cent, with a similar decline in advertising-related sales”. This is significant considering Germany is the largest newspaper market in Europe and the fifth largest in the world.

However online publishing, the alleged adversary of the print media, may ultimately prove its saviour: Deutsche Well reported that the arrival of e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle, the Sony eReader, and Apple’s iPad was “good news for publishers,” according to the Verband Deutscher Zeitschriftenverleger (VDZ), Germany’s largest trade association of magazine publishers. An increase in online publishing will not necessarily result in redundancy for the printing presses. The operation may in fact provide revenue to rejuvenate the floundering industry and ensure that the presses continue to operate.

The VDZ’s Director of Digital Media and New Markets, Alexander von Reibnitz, told Deutsche Welle that “e-publishing can be a real game-changer for publishers looking to tap into new sources of revenue from content, reach new target groups, and attract new advertisers.”

With advertising accounting for more than half of most newspapers’ income, securing new investors is an achievement which may prove crucial for the survival of the format. In an effort to battle on, many forms of print media have embraced the technological transition: The Irish Times and the Guardian can be counted amongst the publications which have established their own Twitter accounts [not to mention, The University Observer – ed].

The degree to which the market for print newspapers has dissipated can also be questioned. Online media veteran Arianna Huffington doesn’t believe that consumers are turning their backs on print. In 2005, Huffington launched a blog and news site, The Huffington Post. Five years later the site is recognised as one of the most visited blog and news sites online, counting 30 Rock star Alec Baldwin amongst its most popular bloggers and columnists.

Huffington informed Forbes Woman in July 2009 that she believed that the predictions of a precarious future for the print media were far from precise. “I believe that the obituaries for newspapers are premature. Many papers are belatedly but successfully adapting to the new news environment” Huffington said. She maintained that “until those of us who came of age before the Internet all die off, there will be a market for print versions of newspapers.”

Indeed, it cannot be denied that there is still a market for print, albeit a declining one. The Wall Street Journal is the best selling news publication in the United States, with circulation of the paper averaging over two million copies per day in the period leading up to March 31st of this year.

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations of North America, the Wall Street Journal has actually experienced a 0.5 per cent increase in circulation in the past year: this achievement is significant considering the Bureau’s report highlighted that overall newspaper circulation in North America had decreased in the same period.

The Wall Street Journal’s appeal to a business-focused demographic arguably invokes echoes of Huffington’s assertion of a generational appreciation for print. On Wall Street, much like money, it seems that for now this trader’s print bible never dies.

In the 1950s, as the age of television dawned, radio was deemed a format which faced certain demise: sixty years later, radio lives on and continues to evolve and adapt to embrace technological advances. Print media faces an uncertain future. Its demise seems absolute for some, but uncertain for others. Only time will tell if the age of technology annihilates print. However, advocates of print may take comfort in the knowledge that video didn’t truly kill the radio star.

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