Newspapers in decline: it’s all your fault

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

Why are newspapers in decline?

This week one of the most discussed articles in the world of journalism and its evolution is published in Journal Inquirer of Connecticut by its managing editor Chris Powell. The thesis of the piece starts from known suppositions: journalism, which is in a sales crisis, must recalibrate its function within society, and the fact that its decline coincides with the rise of the Internet is neither an excuse nor an alibi. According to Powell, newspapers still have an indispensable role – especially at the local level – but their crisis would have to be attributed to the lack of willingness of readers to pay for the news. Are we sure – Powell wonders – that the news is still interesting to people?

In a context in which politics is considered as boring – if not counterproductive – bureaucracy, and poverty and fear impoverish the sense of community, social disintegration may be the primary cause of this lack of interest in current affairs and in what happens beyond the front door. “If you don’t want to know or couldn’t care less, that’s your right, but then the problem is much bigger than journalism”, says Powell. The article sparked more than one controversy especially when Powell says that “newspapers cannot sell themselves to households headed by single women who have several children by different fathers”, who can hardly speak or read English and constitute a rising share of the population, as opposed to two-parent families involved with their children in “normal” local communities such as schools, churches and civic groups (“The managing editor of the Journal Inquirer has interesting/horrible views on newspaper customers”, sums up Philip Bump of The Atlantic).

On, Megan McArdie focuses on another of the causes of this decline. Historical newspapers, that seemed invincible giants, have lost their market share as dramatically as their influence on the advertising industry. After the glories of an almost monopolistic past, newspapers have faced competition from new channels which, rather than catching the attention of readers (who “as a rule” they don’t aim at), have won over the advertisers, compromising the market forever and relegating their digital heritage to compete not with other news outlets, but with platforms that can put up advertising. According to eMarketer, in 2012 Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, AOL and Microsoft represented nearly two-thirds of total digital ad spending. Most people do not get the articles in the way that the media would have liked and expected for years, says Tim Lee of The Washington Post, because “instead of turning print WP readers into digital WP readers, we have turned them into consumers of posts they find via Google, or Facebook, or Twitter”. The game needs to be played against other teams: new, better organized and perfectly in line with the tastes and habits of users.

“There are many ways”

The willingness to pay for news has fallen substantially, especially among the young – who, according to research from the Pew Center, have almost totally lost interest in newspapers. This week Karthika Muthukumaraswamy analyzes the processes and developments on The Huffington Post. There is little desire to contribute financially for online content, Muthukumaraswamy says, but there is still a small niche of consumers willing to fund projects, even to help set them up through crowdfunding. It is what Brooke Gladstone called “consumer surplus”, which from the point of view of digital information has its most exemplary case in the blog of Andrew Sullivan, funded by an elastic paywall of $19.99 per year (which we have already spoken  about  here). The propensity to personalize the news, in the choice of the authors to support and the thematic areas to follow, is becoming clearer and clearer. A trend that started with RSS feeds and its derivatives and has now reached the “personalized magazine” for mobile tools (Flipboard, Zite, Pulse), applications for leanback reading (Instapaper, Pocket) and other projects that are still in an embryonic phase (Circa, According to Ken Doctor, far from the world of journalism, there are those who have the ability to tempt customers’ wallets, like Amazon and Apple. A similar approach, such as the iTunes model (as anticipated in the post of Benton in 2011), may be a good solution for the collapse of the paywall system and free news.

“There are many opportunities for doing good work in new ways”, recalled Anderson, Bell and Shirky in Post-Industrial Journalism. The problem, Dean Starkman states in the Columbia Journalism Review, is that money goes elsewhere and numbers, unfortunately, “do not lie”, as demonstrated by the data from Germany where newspapers seem to be having a harder time even than in the US. This week another paywall has fallen; the The Dallas Morning News is the second relevant  online newspaper to backtrack in front of the “payment wall” after The San Francisco Chronicle. Free access to content began on 01 October. The causes have been expressed clearly by CEO Jason Dyer: “The paywall solution hasn’t worked. It didn’t create a massive groundswell of subscribers”. Publisher Jim Moroney says “In the first quarter of 2011, we became one of the first daily newspapers to ask consumers to pay for the content we distributed digitally. Now, we are going to experiment with another approach”. From the research, it is evident that subscribers were willing to pay not for the content itself but for the method of delivery and what it represented (“a print experience”). The challenge, Moroney concludes, is to discover how many consumers will be willing to pay for a “premium” digital experience.

A poorer Guardian to conquer the world

Among different approaches to the problem there is that of The Guardian, the British newspaper whose ownership is held by a trust that protects its independence, which has decided almost “ideologically” to publish only free online content. This week Ken Auletta of The New Yorker dedicates a long profile to the newspaper, its editor, its overall strategy and the troubled waters in which it navigates financially. In the last few years a more “aggressive” approach has been established, especially with regard to investigative journalism and scoops, with the aim of making them a “trademark” of the newspaper. It happened with the phone-tapping affair which involved the Murdoch group, with the Wikileaks case and with the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ, for which it had shared the work with The New York Times and ProPublica. “We need to be global”, the Guardian Media Group CEO admits to The New Yorker, and it is not a coincidence that recently the American structure of the newspaper has been reinforced, purchasing the domain .com and starting the expansion of the brand in Australia in 2012. Not relying on the paywall, the arena in which it competes is the same as the BBC – the all free omnipresent competitor in the Anglophone market – that ensures an oversupply which, in the UK at least, means they are unlikely to survive, the CEO admits.

How much longer can the “everything for free” philosophy last? From a purely quantitative point of view, this journalistically compelling strategy is apparently paying off, taking the website to third place among the most read English news portals (after The Daily Mail and the NYT). But its significant online presence still seems to be unprofitable and fails to translate into revenue necessary for the survival of the group – which has begun to make statements such as “We are not the Taliban of free”. The print paper is definitely doing worse: daily circulation has collapsed to about 190,000, half compared to that of 2002, leading to losses in nine consecutive years for about $50 million. There are different perspectives: some people believe that a “too big for the digital age” newsroom should be unequivocally dismantled, others – like Jeff Jarvis – imagine for The Guardian a lighter future, devoted almost exclusively to digital and a paper edition on sale “only on certain days”. A still very strong brand, a globally recognized voice as a liberal sentinel, that would still have the opportunity to put forward its own brand and its own unique investigative work – the real added value. However, it has yet to figure out exactly how.

The slight presence of women in newspapers and journalism

One of the most appreciated articles this week is by Adrienne LaFrance of The Washington Post. She conducted a study on gender bias in news production that starts from a clear fact: only 24% of people who we read or hear about in the media are women (according to a research in 2010 by Global Media Monitoring Project), and reporters who contribute to the so-called hard news (politics, crime news, economy, science) are in the clear majority men (between 56 and 67%). LaFrance checked all her production from August 2012 to August 2013, imagining she would find more comforting data. In her articles written for The Post, NiemanLab, Denver Post, CivilBeat, FastCompany, Medium on different topics (a total of 136, from the 2012 elections to the Boston Marathon bomb), only 509 women were mentioned compared to 1556 men – and 52 of her 136 posts did not contain any names of women. There is a margin of error, considering for example that the measuring instrument (a Gender tracker) does not recognize names like Hemingway or Beyoncé, but the average is striking.

Such a result is perhaps a natural transposition in numbers and words of a still heavily male world, in which women are under-represented at all levels, but it is also raises the issue of journalism’s role in society. To the question “Is it your job to merely reflect what’s out there?”, LaFrance wonders if it is possible to look to journalism to reverse the trend, to take advantage of the strong influence it still exerts in the public sphere in order to change things. This kind of gender bias, she concludes, is a problem “but change is possible” if individual journalists and major media institutions take up the challenge.