Newspapers now and in 2017

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

The state of news media

Not too many surprises emerge from the data contained in the latest World Press Trend analysis presented a few days ago by the World Association of Newspaper and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), except some ‘anticyclical’ anomalies to observe carefully. The continuous and progressive decline of newspaper circulation in the ‘old’ West has emerged, with a collapse of 6.6% in North America (-13% since 2008) and of 5.3% and 8.2% in eastern and western Europe. A negative sign also for  advertising revenue which showed a decline of 42% over the last five years in the US. Declines in North Africa and the Middle East are more contained (which in advertising still earn 3% on an annual basis) and Latin America (+9% revenues from advertising), while Asia experienced a growth in circulation of 1.2% (+9.8 in 5 years) and of 3.5% in advertising revenue, a market driven “mainly by China, India and Indonesia”, according to Pichai Chuensuksawadi, editor in chief of Thailand Post Publishing.

It is a figure that does not change the overall look of the market, which shows a tendency towards a significant drop in advertising revenue, much greater than the fall in newspaper circulation. In this regard, one of the most interesting results of the research shows that the sale of single copies has collapsed by 26%, while subscriptions have decreased by ‘only’ 8%. These numbers, in some way, explain one of the most curious trends in the research; in countries such as USA, Germany and France, the time spent on news content on tablets is the same as that spent on reading printed newspapers, a clue perhaps to the growth in subscriptions declared by the New York Times almost exclusively due to the introduction of the paywall.

Paywall infatuation

The exaltation of the paywall model has been one of the recurring themes at the World Newspaper Congress in Bangkok. Editorial and publishing groups are well aware that on the Internet the willingness to pay is significantly undermined by the possibility of using competitive and free content, but the system of the Times remains the object of envy of many – even for those who could not afford it, emphasizes Jeff Jarvis, professor at  City University in New York – pushed by a kind of paradigm shift. “The general impression was that it would be impossible to reverse the culture of free (online) content”, Gilles Demptos, director of Publications and Events for WAN-IFRA Asia, explains – but “The great news is, that is changing”, and that the willingness to contribute financially to quality is increasing, especially if one considers the 325,000 new subscribers and readers of the NYT from 2011 onwards (by the erection of the ‘wall’) and the forthcoming adoption of the system also by The Washington Post, announced this week. The problem, however, exists. According to Jarvis, the paywall, while a success for big name newspapers, risks being insufficient. “This infatuation with paywalls”, he explained, may encourage the news industry “to replicate its old, industrial business models in a new, digital reality”, ignoring one of the major problems of the current market, namely lack of engagement.

In Jarvis’ opinion, newspapers should learn how to build stronger relationships with their readers, following for example non-traditional media such as Reddit, a social-oriented and active community of 70 million monthly users (for example, NPR has been moving in this direction for a while). On the web old ‘brands’ work only in a few cases (and the NYT is the most paradigmatic case, against that of the new Newsweek); the general lack of brand-identity and a strong readership base necessitates in consequence the winning over of new and old groups of users.

How will the media be in 2017?

Users will determine the future of newspapers and their forthcoming business models. This is what has emerged from the analysis of PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) about the scenarios of the media sector in four years. The research, which extends its reach to the whole digital sector, imagines a 2017 in which users – more and more consumers or products of advertisers, fewer and fewer readers – will shape the market with new habits and new commercial desires. A dominant aspect, according to PwC, is the growing demand for content where and when users want, the absolute control of the use of the product (the Netflix phenomenon is exemplary in this sense) because it is only “connected to the consumer, who really has control.” Of course, such a broad range of options could provoke indecision and bad judgment, but the phenomenon – the research notes – can be an opportunity for companies to act as a filter helping readers to navigate, discover and choose from a multitude of content.

Most offers on multiple media always mean more uncertainty in terms of advertising. The interpretation of 2017, according to the PwC report, will be the careful analysis of data and multi-platform metrics, to gain as much money as possible from the already conclamated rise of content consultation on second screen mode (for example, watching TV while tweeting from a tablet). Hence the need to reinvent one’s own products and modulate them according to their use because “content” always remains “the king”. However, you still need to figure out how to format, package and sell it. The report does not leave much hope for old players. The growth of revenue from digital advertising is expected to reach 37% in 2017, and paper (newspapers, magazines, books) will grow by less than one percentage point.

What’s your digital strategy?

It is clear that in such a context it becomes essential to work on a well designed digital strategy that allows the ferrying of one’s own group through the crisis and, at the same time, to indicate an alternative to the ongoing revolution. The problem, Alan D. Mutter of Editor & Publisher says in a post on this subject, is that there is no single answer. The approach – Mutter suggests – is to think about this marketplace as a “kinetic” entity, constantly changing, which risks  not having any more points of reference at any time of the year and perhaps forever, regardless of its own choices. The introduction in the technological market of the “new iThing”, he continues, can be as influential and unexpectedly decisive as the iPhone and the iPad were six and three years ago, rewriting the media as we know it.

The idea is to continue to deal with the technological evolution, with changing expectations, preferences of consumers and in the way investments change, keeping the pulse of these three factors and scientifically analyzing the market without being afraid to find new more promising markets, to invest in side projects even “cannibalizing” one’s own existing business (the example cited by Mutter is the Boston Globe with the site It’s important – he concludes, in this series of suggestions for the future and the digital survival of the media companies – to keep trying, with creativity and courage, testing new products as soon as possible, listening to feedback and correcting or withdrawing rapidly, in a cycle of necessary iteration.

Who is the Tesla of media?

It is the research for the perfect product that can change the characteristics of the market of referral forever, rewriting the rules of the game. This week Mathew Ingram asks if it is possible to find an equivalent of Tesla Motors in the media sector. Tesla is the car company that has innovated more – and put to the test – the whole American motorsport scene, through the production of successful electric cars in an industry which has always been hostile. Does there exist, Ingram asks, a disruptive figure in the media, the way Elon Musk (the founder of the car company) has been for his industry? The first answer the author gives is “Huffington Post“, since it is the closest thing to the old models (online newspapers, as well as the simple car for Tesla Motors) but revolutionary in its own way.

HuffPost, Ingram suggests, has overturned the opinion of those who did not believe it could stand on the unpaid work of hundreds of writers (or bloggers), nor on free content. It was believed that the readers would not appreciate the nature of the aggregator, and there would be an inability to build such a strong and wide audience in such a short time and have the capacity to evolve from a viral media to a website with purely journalistic credentials (in 2012 HuffPost won a Pulitzer Prize). Last but not least, the group believed strongly in the “science” of viral content through analysis of data and the implementation of specific and innovative tools. In recent times, the baton has been passed to BuzzFeed, not surprisingly headed by Jonah Peretti, co-founder of the Huffington Post. Could Peretti be, the author concludes, the Elon Musk of the media?