Newspapers are facing their greatest challenge in the history of newsprint. Last century newspapers weathered competition from radio and television, but in the 21st century they face a new order of competition that derives from the Internet. It is a threat of a kind unimaginable just a few years ago, and one which is forcing proprietors, editors and journalists to innovate on the move.
In the newspaper industry adversity has always been the mother of invention and it is responding with initiatives - technological and journalistic - that it hopes will help it to at least maintain audience share. In April, for example, the Fairfax Media CEO David Kirk announced changes which include training for journalists in multi-media equipment and news gathering techniques, as well as scaling down the size of the hard copy Herald and Age to somewhere between a broadsheet and a tabloid.
The Fairfax move comes amid much talk of doom for the newspaper industry. One recent prediction foreshadows the first quarter of 2043 as the moment when newsprint dies in the US “as the last exhausted reader tosses aside the last crumpled edition”. Newspapers are seen as an “endangered species” with “the business of selling words to readers and selling readers to advertisers … falling apart”.
As well as the news aggregators such as Google and Yahoo, there are 70 million bloggers out in the world, numerous online journals and magazines, video on demand, and social networking sites, all enticing people into a new media experience.
The planet’s most powerful press baron, Rupert Murdoch, has warned that the new technology will change the old order forever. Societies or companies that expect a glorious past to shield them from the forces of change driven by advancing technology will fail and fall, says Murdoch: “A new generation of media consumers has risen demanding content delivered when they want it, how they want it, and very much as they want it”.
The threat to newspapers is immense, not just from blogs, social networking sites and news and features platforms, but also from new advertising players such as craigslist, which operates local classified services in 450 cities worldwide, and which is draining money away from traditional newspapers.
But rather than buckle under the pressure of new technologies many newspaper companies instead are utilising those technologies to resist and repel the advances of new competitors. Entrepreneurs do not stand still - today they are exploiting the digital world to boost their profits.
New technologies have allowed newspapers to be printed faster and more efficiently. New digital media platforms have enabled publishers to broaden their content offerings and offer advertisers additional benefits through cross-platform sales. And they've provided publishers with new ways to market their titles and extend their reach (“The future is here”, The Guardian, February 12, 2007). In the words of John Sommerville (The News Revolution in England, 1966) - the search for profits has made news publishers ingenious.
Today’s challenges are profound. An IBM report, Navigating the Media Divide, warns of a clash between old and new media. In the traditional world, it says, content produced by professionals and distributed through proprietary platforms still dominates. But in the new world, content is often user-created and accessed through open platforms.
“In web 2.0 terms we are moving from connecting computers together to connecting people together. So it's not just providing compelling content but providing compelling experience and part of the experience may be something that extends beyond traditional content,” says Steven Canepa, vice-president of IBM’s global media and entertainment industry.
Newspapers navigated pre-Internet threats by broadening their content, incorporating lifestyle features, background information, and entertainment utilising supplements, including colour magazines, to focus on areas such as the home and property markets, technology, food, and health.
While the industry is being challenged by new players, it should not be assumed all newspapers everywhere are in terminal decline. Data from the World Association of Newspapers show that, contrary to conventional wisdom, newspaper circulation worldwide is growing and new newspapers are being launched at a remarkable rate.