Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Print media are in dire trouble – but blogs are no substitute

The big three car makers are now the focus of attention in the US. The good news is that their incompetence and fecklessness are not being overlooked. The odds of their being saved seem mercifully lower now than before, especially as other industries, facing the same brutal environment, are not sure why they shouldn’t be bailed out as well.

Take the newspaper industry. It has been faltering badly under the pressure of new media for a few years. For much of the past decade, circulation for all papers has been declining at about 2% a year. The last year has been a test case of sorts. Newspapers had the story of a lifetime: an election campaign of historic interest, suspense, drama and personality. From Hillary to Barack, from John Edwards’s love child to Sarah Palin’s Down’s syndrome child, from John McCain’s wild lunges for relevance to the first black president, it was the kind of year in which circulation should have boomed. If you live for a story, this year was an embarrassment of riches.

And yet the decline didn’t just continue. It accelerated.

Between March and September the 500 biggest newspapers in America reported an average circulation decline of 4.6%. In six months. That’s close to a 10% decline per year. No newspapers showed any but fractional gains. It is therefore a near-certainty that many towns and cities in America will no longer have a newspaper after the down-turn. And that may apply not just to small names but to some big ones as well. The Los Angeles Times, for example, has gone from a circulation of 1.1m to 739,000 since the turn of the millennium. Its staff has been halved. Morale has never been lower.

Landmark names – the news equivalent of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford – are increasingly on the chopping block. The Chicago Tribune has seen its weekday circulation collapse by 8% in the past year. The Gannett company, which owns scores of papers, has announced a 10% cut in staff after a 5% reduction earlier this year. The Christian Science Monitor has gone from a daily to a website with a weekly print edition. The Rocky Mountain News is for sale. The profit margins of even the most established papers, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, are so slim, the future looks extremely dodgy. Some analysts are even predicting that The New York Times will go belly up by the spring.

Declining circulation has been accompanied by sliding advertising. The internet stole most classified advertising from papers long ago. The recession is killing what’s left. The car industry – a big component of newspaper advertising – is in freefall, and department stores are fast fading. There is also a vicious cycle in which the often brutal across-the-board staff cuts and buyouts have removed much of the good-quality reporting that prompts readers to buy newspapers in the first place. And so, as the quality declines, and Google looms, the product increasingly spirals downwards.

What of the web? This was supposed to be the saviour. And, to be fair, the newspaper industry, after a sluggish start, has made great progress. The New York Times website is one of the best and most informative in the world. The Washington Post has added bells, whistles and blogs, blogs, blogs. Only a few years ago journalistic titans were derisive and condescending towards bloggery. Now they are competing to grab a slice of the action.

The problem here, however, is that online advertising, while growing, is not growing fast enough to replace print advertising. It almost certainly will one day, but the distance between the print sinking ship and the online life raft was always perilously long. And now the recession has whipped the waters between into hurricane turbulence. I have a feeling that if and when the storm ends, there will be few ships left and only a few survivors clinging onto small but buoyant dinghies.

The economics of this are brutal. Print and paper and delivery by lorry are immensely cumbersome and expensive compared with a modem – or even with a mobile reading device that you can take on a train or bus in the morning. A single blogger in his bedroom can reach as many readers as a big paper, with no overheads and no staff and no product costs except band-width. That kind of economic competitive advantage is entirely a function of technological change and it is unavoidable.

To give my own example: I started blogging eight years ago. My once quirky blog, born in time to cover the 2000 election campaign, has steadily grown in traffic over the years, but this year, with the election campaign and a media revolution, it went into the stratosphere. In October last year my blog got 3.5m page views; in October this year it had 23m page views. The story of the campaign, in other words, did find a readership (and page views of big online papers soared as well). The growth just didn’t occur in newsprint, and the next generation of readers – those now under 30 – barely knows what a newspaper is.

Now compare my little blog’s traffic with The Baltimore Sun, a big metropolitan paper with a long history and great reputation, featured most recently in the HBO series The Wire. It had 17.5m page views in October; The Dallas Morning News got 12m; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution got 14m. The operation largely run out of my spare room reached many more online readers than some of the biggest and most loss-making papers in the country. The economics are remorseless: as news goes online, the economic model for papers cannot survive. If advertising follows page views, the game will shortly be over.

The terrifying problem is that a one-man blog cannot begin to do the necessary labour-intensive, skilled reporting that a good newspaper sponsors and pioneers. A world in which reporting becomes even more minimal and opinion gets even more vacuous and unending is not a healthy one for a democracy. Perhaps private philanthropists will step in and finance not-for-profit journalistic centres, where investigative and foreign reporting can be invested in and disseminated by blogs and online sites. Maybe reporter-bloggers will start rivalling opinion-mongers such as me and give the whole enterprise some substance. Maybe papers can slim down sufficiently to produce a luxury print issue and a viable online product. There’s always a hunger for news, after all.

Or maybe, as I urged in this space a few years ago, you should take a moment to savour the piece of grubby newsprint in your hands this Sunday. Because it is going to disappear far sooner than most analysts predict.

Source: Times Online

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