We frequently hear from reporters and students who want to know our opinion about the future of media in general and newspapers in particular. We’ve assembled our answers to some of the most common questions here. Feel free to quote from these comments. If you need additional perspective, e-mail us.
What’s the outlook for newspapers?
The newspaper industry as we have known it in the US and Europe will never recover. The changes in the way people consume information are permanent, and big-brand publications will never be as critical as they once were.
Google has been a game-changer. We now subscribe to information rather than to media sources. We search and click on links from our friends to find information that interests us. Newspapers have relied upon loyal subscribers who renewed every year for their business. Those subscriber numbers are dwindling and the audience is getting older. This trend will not reverse.
Another major factor is that the cost of advertising is plummeting, thanks to online advertising exchanges and Craigslist. This has permanently damaged the revenue model of the newspaper industry and will force the titles that survive to cut back, diversify their revenue streams and reduced frequency.
Do you think it’s possible for the newspaper industry to make a comeback?
Many newspaper companies will survive as smaller properties with multiple revenue streams and a diminishing print component. The brands may last for a long time, but they will never again be as large and influential as they were just five years ago.
But being big isn’t the point. What matters is that platforms for quality journalism survive and flourish, regardless of how many there are or how big. In fact, there is opportunity in the current industry downturn for newspaper companies to wean themselves off their advertising addiction and to diversify and strengthen their positions.
Think of The Walt Disney Company. Forty years ago Disney was wholly dependent on hit movies for its success. It had a vulnerable and unpredictable model. Today, Disney is a diversified media and entertainment company with revenues coming from theme park visitors, license fees, tickets, retail sales, advertising and even online subscriptions. It can survive a string of flop movies because it has other sources of income.
Newspaper companies are finally making the shift. The Newspaper Association of America reported in early 2013 that new products like digital consulting for local business and e-commerce transactions accounted for nearly 10% of revenues at newspaper companies. There is an opportunity for media companies that diversify successfully to emerge from advertising crash stronger and better positioned for growth.
Is it at all possible for electronic media to be phased out someday just as newspapers are right now?
Until someone figures out a way to deliver information directly to the cerebral cortex, I think electronic media will be the dominant way people consume information for a long time to come. It’s fast, cheap and easy to update.
The bigger question that you’re not asking is what the impact of newspapers’ decline will be on journalism. I’ve written about this quite a bit on the blog, but in a nutshell I believe we will go through a period of great tumult as people try to figure out a sustainable model for quality journalism. I fear that serious investigative journalism is threatened because it requires time and patience. On the other hand, we have more information at our fingertips today than we’ve ever had, and I think that’s a good thing. I like the perspective of this article in Slate