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by Stephen Logan on 25th July 2011
Whilst the Internet has spawned new industries, fresh opportunities and a platform for entrepreneurs, it has also signalled the death knell for many traditional businesses. Established high street stores have closed and even service providers have struggled as a result of international competition.
However, one of the industries that has faced the biggest upheaval as a result of the digital revolution is the printed press. With print costs rising, the emergence of 24 hour news and readerships plummeting, newspapers are facing a battle for survival.
The Internet can’t replicate or replace everything though. Consumers still buy ‘papers because of their tangible qualities. Not everybody wants to be drip fed news throughout the day, through tweets, blogs and other media outlets. Many still prefer to have a sit down with a cup of tea or on the train and skim through the latest stories.
Whilst tablet computers have perhaps attempted to rival this kind of experience, traditionalists still enjoy physically turning the pages, getting inky fingers and filling in the crossword. However, this may not always be the case.
As future generations adopt advanced, new technology, newspapers can expect to see even sharper declines in sales. Whilst some industries have thrived in the face of increased Internet and mobile competition, there is no disguising the unceasing reduction in the popularity of print media.
The ABC audience figures for May showed that only one paper had actually seen a year on increase – The Mail on Sunday (by a mere 0.01%). Elsewhere, readers of The Times slipped by 13.3%, The Guardian by 12.5%, The Sun by 3.1% and Daily Mail by 1.6%. That’s a pretty bleak outlook. Whilst this could be attributed to unusual spikes in sales for 2010, these figures are reflective of a general downward trend.
Of course the industry has taken a hammering in the last year or so and, more particularly, within the last few weeks. The scandals that eventually led to closure of The News of the World have tarnished the printed press and have bought questions about the standards and ethics of journalism in the country. A recent poll showed that readers of Murdoch-owned titles (including The Times and Sun) would consider buying another ‘paper in the wake of this scandal, or not buying a Sunday title at all. If the ship is indeed sinking, the hole just got a little bigger.
Newspaper titles aren’t necessarily going to follow NOTW into the skip though. However, more may need follow the lead of the Mail Online or The Times. Whilst The Times has chosen to charge for Internet content, placing a paywall around the site, The Mail has enjoyed huge success in producing vast quantities of celebrity puff pieces, generating a vast audience. The approaches may be different, but both show an adoption of online technology and an awareness of trends.
The Guardian have also been proactive in attempting to subsidise their printed output with online activities. They have successfully used social media to interact with the wider community, Comment is Free to encourage a wide range of editorial opinions (sometimes controversial, often current affairs and regularly a unique insight into stories that simply aren’t reported) and they have also developed an extensive free API data resource.
So plunging print numbers aren’t necessarily going to see titles disappear into the mists of time, but it is essential that journalistic standards are maintained (or improved) whilst online content continues to be monetised. As well as display advertising, many offer dating services, bingo and fantasy sports to keep the coffers full.
But the problem isn’t just competition within the established industry, but from outside. With specialist blogs, sharing via social networking, search engine aggregation and overseas competitors - like the newly arrived Huffington Post UK - the market is expanding hugely, as is the way we interact with news. Readers aren’t necessarily going to be tied to a single title, like many would traditionally, and they certainly might not wish to pay for the privilege of accessing stories.
With so much to consider and calculate for the newspapers, one wrong move could be critical. The wave of public anger being directed at News International and talks of boycotts is difficult to stem. The social nature of the Internet can mean that small campaigns can get major coverage, which could have long-term implications (equally, it could all be forgotten within weeks).
It’s not just readers that newspapers need to worry about though. At the height of the hacking scandal, and on the day that the Murdochs were due in court, The Sun’s website was hacked by LulzSec. As well as redirecting visitors to a fake story reporting the death of Rupert Murdoch, they were also then forwarded on to the LulzSec Twitter feed. This isn’t the first instance and, more likely than not, it probably won’t be the last.
So dangers are many and the positives appear few. Whilst it isn’t inconceivable that newspapers will continue to print and succeed in that form, an ‘adapt or die’ philosophy must be employed. Controversies, boycotts, hacking and rising costs will do nothing to improve the credibility of a faltering industry. As well as maintaining current readers, ‘papers need to find a way to continue high adoption rates throughout the generations. If they fail with this, then the media could look very different a decade from now and be unrecognisable in the decades beyond that.