Photograph by Carol Guillaume under Creative Commons license
The revolution in the media industry has shaken the tectonic plates of print media to their very core, leading in perpetual alterations and adjustments in order to comply with the new world order. The web’s impact on the field is unprecedented, and more challenging than ever.
Some suggest that much like the paper photographs, written press will disappear. However, humanity has seen similar vast technologic leaps over time and opted for Mp3 players over CDs, cars over carriages. The more efficient achievements of our kind were cherished and guess what? Books and newspapers are still around.
For some, including myself, print still serves its purpose, and we aren’t quite ready to let go yet; the shift from print to online will definitely take some time. Real life interaction can be experienced through print; it is more physical and tangible. It engages memories and sentiments; it is text that lives outside a screen. Take a minute and breathe in the distinctive smell of the magazine in your hands; would you change that feeling for the online alternative? The beauty and portability of a glossy magazine is indescribable; the ideal companion to curl up in bed with, or even when in the loo.On the other hand, I hate to admit, online is a very powerful channel of communication. In the “glocal” (global and local) communities that we currently live in, it is impossible to gather all the news required unless using web tools. Sound, still and moving image, are now used to enhance the media experience and expand the reach of the written word. It is essential that you see what you hear and vise versa; the possibilities are endless.
The minute a story is released online, the transparency of sources is constructive at the very least. The author can instantly react with the readership, be judged, get feedback, exchange opinions. He can be inspired and motivated by the comments, form a better idea of the public’s needs and eventually satisfy them.
Moreover, the upcoming trend of community journalism and citizen journalists gives voice to more people. The online database allows easy and fast access, leading to the emergence of the “prosumer”, the new kind of consumer who is accustomed to the social media and both produces and consumes all the messages he/she wants. However, this unlimited freedom in expressing one’s opinion on every possible subject raises the question of whether or not we are turning into a human centipede. Do we just consume and reproduce each other’s crap, instead of relying on accurate and verified information?
Online media are constantly reinvented, giving the opportunity to its users to customize their news. They can use filters to learn what they want, when they want it; a gradually more demanding audience that won’t be able to settle for less.
Thankfully, at least for the time being, the online doesn’t have as much credibility. Due to the bulk of information circulating online, “sloppy” news stories are regularly published and unfortunately, can be easily forgotten. The emergence of “churnalism” (when journalists reproduce information released by PR agencies/Press Association without checking, as a result of time and cost shortage) is increasingly prominent, while serving specific interests. Therefore, online lacks quality and in-depth analysis, as stories are updated by the minute. Quality is sacrificed for the sake of quantity, leading the readers to information overload.
Apart from bursting generalities, a few dare to predict the future of the profession with certainty. According to Center for the Digital Future of USC, in five years most US newspapers will close down. I am not going to bother with any more statistics; figures may differ from country to country, depending on the accessibility to digital resources-only two billion people reached, not the largest part of the world yet-, the content and size of publications.
Bottom line is that most newspapers will become obsolete in the near future; whether that is in five or in ten years. There will be unexpected merges and vast changes in the landscape of the field. The biggest and smallest firms will survive, the ones in the middle won’t. Strong brand will keep functioning as a status emblem, and combined with solid, experienced reporting it will keep bringing readership. Local will survive, due to the loyal and very specific target readership groups; it was never the youngsters who kept these papers going.
The proof of print’s survival lies in real life examples, and there is a perfect one I would like to share. A couple of months ago, Jemondlocal (a hyper-local online newspaper for the Jesmond area), Novel and a team of ambitious and eager journalists, editors, illustrators and photographers, gathered up at the Baltic to execute a delusional plan: create a 48 h pop-up magazine about Turner prize, in an effort to bring art back to normal people. The task was successfully met; the most invaluable lesson this experience taught us was that print is not at all dead, at least on a local level. Advertisers where more interested to participate in the project than they were for any other online template we have produced in the past. Print might not be the primary or most profitable means of media, but it will still be around, in the form of Sunday papers mostly, tabloids, magazines and books.
This is not the first and possibly not the last recession to be dealt with; hence print media is not the only sector facing a crisis. Realistically speaking, jobs lost are not coming back; prices and profitability will be dramatically reduced, advertising rates are already dropping.
“Our new economy is shrinking because technology leads to efficiency over growth” as Jeff Jarvis, journalist and new media guru, puts it. The only possibilities for new job openings will be counted in the fingers of one hand and will be created by entrepreneurs.
Profit is what makes the business world go around. Myriads of people in the industry are worried sick, trying to follow new profitable routes. Everything from “pay walls”, micropayments, restructuring their websites. Online almost eliminates the cost of production and distribution. So how can print compete with free anymore? Gradually both professionals and audience are getting used to that pattern of free circulation, which at this point seems irreversible. Online subscriptions-much like in NY Times case- have strongly failed; when a service previously free goes private, the percentage of digital ads and traffic revenue go downhill. The truth is, news organizations never entirely relied on subscriptions for profit. The big money came from advertising and stocks.
For online media, there is no direct payment. Indirect funding services are the future, like ad integration features and value-add services. Banner advertising is no longer a successful option; there are already applications out there, which can successfully remove all ads from a page. Nowadays-even customers can function as ads agencies through word of mouth on the web. In author’s Elbert Hubbard words “The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done, is generally interrupted by someone doing it”. No potential predictions can be finalized, being innovative and keep an open mind is the way to be part of the change.
The essence of media doesn’t modify, only the platform. We are facing a movement of content from one medium to another. The means of distribution might be different, but the focus should remain on the information. Of course, print will suffer a slow death. Few parts of it will eventually survive, but will shift shape many times, evolve, and adapt to new markets.
The only way to keep print around a little longer is by giving it an edge; investigative journalism could even stand out online. People use RSS feed mostly for the headlines, but most would definitely take the time with a well-written, accurate piece, providing a hint of hope.
Our effort though should not focus on the resuscitation of print media. The Golden Age of print journalism monopoly is long gone. Unfortunately, the relation between print an online media is a zero-sum game; one has to fail for the other one to prosper. And this modification in dynamics is not a sign of our times; it is simply a matter of years.
With the digital era being finally upon us, the more open people are with their ideas, thoughts and information, the better human contact and general progress are promoted and accomplished. Jeff Jarvis’s advice to turn our private parts into public is not only encouraged, but also mandated.
Money will be earned through variant venues and life-long learning will be imposed; harder times will come. Journalists will follow alternative paths to make a living like consulting, blogging, teaching or writing books. They will experiment with the profitable possibilities of new and creative business models. Waiting for our moment of sheer serendipity is pointless; we should constantly struggle to acquire new skills and keep up with the pace in order to survive an ever-changing world.
*Parts of the article published in “The Print is Dead” issue of Novel magazine, March-April.