I’ve read article after article about the demise of print media, both globally and in the region. Often, that decline is attributed to digital media. And sometimes, as with a recent piece I read, media executives, who should better understand the situation, brush aside the issue and claim that all is well with media.
I’m a former journalist who loves print media in all of its forms. However, it doesn’t take a media executive or former journalist to see that print is in trouble. Even in our region, where most newspapers are government-owned and often run at a loss, print isn’t attracting advertisers or readers like it used to. Media consumption has moved online and the public has switched its morning paper for a morning scroll of their smartphones. This is most pronounced among the younger generation, many of whom get their dose of news from social media networks.
There is a print renaissance happening today in the United States. The New York Times ended 2016 with 1.6 million digital news subscribers, up by 47 percent thanks to what has been described as a ‘Trump bump’ post-election burst that saw more people sign up in the fourth quarter of 2016 than in 2013 and 2014 combined. Likewise, the Washington Post saw a 75 percent gain in subscribers in 2016, more than doubling digital circulation revenue. In January of this year, the paper added 30 percent more new digital subscribers than it had in November, setting a fresh record.
It’s simple. There’s a hunger among readers for high-quality journalism and analysis on issues such as politics and business. What with the goings-on at the White House, Brexit and elections in Germany and France, editors and reporters in the US and Europe certainly have much to write about. Print media has also been helped by the plethora of fake news sites online; readers want credible, high-quality news and it seems they’re willing to pay for it.
I’m not going to attempt to compare media here with the press in the West; we live in a different cultural and legal environment. However, many of the journalists that I know here are professionals who want to produce high-quality content that their audiences want to read. They have to balance their desire to write high-quality copy with the demand they often face from advertisers, who instead push their own public relations copy.
Often, journalists will be burned for producing an original story that doesn’t reflect the wishes of an advertiser. The advertiser will then lean on the publisher to remove an article, or ensure that it doesn’t happen again. And what the publication becomes is a collection of branded content, most of which the reader isn’t interested in reading. While it may keep the advertiser happy, this approach does little to interest the reader and grow the subscriber base. And I personally find it distasteful. Editorial and sales should always remain separate. Any other type of behavior is unethical.
It’s not going to be easy, particularly for publishers who rely on advertising incomes rather than subscription fees. And then there’s the issue of transparency on readership numbers. There are few publications that are independently audited, which doesn’t help promote trust in the industry.
When used well, digital helps amplify good content. It brings in new subscribers, especially a younger audience, and promotes the publication. However, even some of the world’s biggest publishers are still losing money through their digital operations – the world’s most popular online publisher is the Daily Mail and it’s still not making a profit from its digital operations.
Instead, if the media is to remain relevant, the focus needs to be on high-quality editorial content that is newsworthy and not influenced by advertisers. Publications and publishers need to win back their readership and they’ll do that by writing stories that some don’t want published.
To turn to an oft-quoted remark: “Whatever a patron desires to get published is advertising; whatever he wants to keep out of the paper is news.” I’ve never bought a publication for an advert and I don’t know anyone who has.