The state of the newspaper industry - where now?
The recent news of more than 6,000 journalists loosing their jobs in America, plus falling advertising revenues and stock prices, is a worrying sign for the industry both sides of the Atlantic. There are many differences between the newspaper industries in the USA and the UK but both are in trouble and things are getting worse.
In a roundtable discussion hosted by Democracy Now, Bernard Lunzer, president of the Newspaper Guild, Chris Hedges, senior fellow at the Nation Institute and former New York Times foreign correspondent and Linda Jue, Director of New Voices in Independent Journalism looked at the causes and consequences of the latest job losses and the possible solutions.
While everyone agreed that concentration of ownership was one of the reasons behind job losses and a decrease in the quality of coverage, the internet proved a more contentious issue. Hedges citied it as one of the main problems while Jue predicted it could be the saviour.
Hedges said: “I think the important issue here concerns the internet. There has been an assumption, which I think is false, that newspapers will make the transition to the internet, that the internet is just another delivery system.
“Only ten percent of ad revenue goes to the internet. In terms of national figures, it’s about $21 billion a year, which is a very small percentage of revenues. We’ll still get those sort of free dailies they hand out on the metro, designed to be read in twenty minutes, which are essentially advertising rags with virtually no reporting. But the large newspapers are dying, and the internet is not going to replace them.
“I think if you look at the blogosphere, it’s very clear that there’s a parasitic quality. They feed off of the wire services and the newspapers, which probably account for about 80 percent of all newsgathering. When that’s gone, we are just going to descend into kind of packaging and partisanship and propaganda.”
Some would argue, however, that the current corporate media model is already packaging propaganda, see Naom Chomsky’s propaganda model. And while much of what is found on the web is not first hand reporting, some information is and as new models of ownership emerge this type of coverage is set to increase. Hodges is correct, though, when he says that newsgathering and investigative journalism are suffering. The cause, though, is the pressures of commercialisation and consolidation, and not the internet.
In defence of the internet Jue said: I’m not sure that I agree entirely with what you’re saying, Chris, because I am witnessing, actually, in the Bay Area numerous new enterprises starting to come up, being formed actually by journalists, to find new business models that will sustain very good journalism.
“Foundations are actually beginning to look at that more, and there are new cooperative models that are being proposed right now, business proposals that are being proposed right now that I know of, to deal with the issue of foreign reporting and also to deal with the problems of in-depth investigative reporting.”
Lunzer also agreed, he said: “There are different models. And some of us are starting to believe that we may have to rescue newspapers from the market itself for these things to survive, for any quality journalism to survive.”
While Hedges seemed too quick to write off the internet as the future, some of his criticisms where important and need to be addressed. “The average reader of the paper copy of the New York Times spends forty-five minutes reading the paper,” he said. “The average viewer of the New York Times website spends about seven minutes. The internet is not designed for a literate society. We are moving into a post-literate society, a society where information and of course a very limited quality is portrayed primarily through images. The internet can make that fusion between print and images. But the medium itself will determine the content. And to somehow look at the internet as simply another delivery system is a mistake. So there are many factors that go in here.”
Writing in this week’s Media Guardian, Jim Bilton said that the problem facing the industry was not the number of readers but the frequency of readers. ‘It is not so much that fewer people are reading newspapers, although this is true - the National Readership Survey suggests that the percentage of adults who read a national daily newspaper has fallen by 2% over the last 18 months. What is actually falling faster is the number of times in a week that people read their newspaper - this has slipped by 3.5% over the same 18-month period,’ he wrote.
The newspaper which is keeping its reader frequency high is the Sun. ‘Driven by its selective, regional price cuts, it is the only national newspaper to show year-on-year growth in July (+0.2%), but this has slowed right down from the 2-3% rises seen in earlier months. Currently 31% of its UK sale is below its full cover price of 35p. So, the recent announcement that it is moving to a national price of 30p has sent shudders through the whole industry, fearful that this could be the start of a new price war.’
If newspaper owners and editors decide that the answer to falling readership is to cut prices then things may get worse. The dangers of ownership concentration, outlined in the Democracy Now discussion, will be exacerbated as smaller papers are driven out of the market of taken over.
We are fast approaching a point were either the cooperative models, which Jue puts her faith in, need to take off or further consolidation is inevitable.
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