feeding my own misguided insanity

Does the Death of Newspapers Suggest the Death of Journalism?

Whether it’s for convenience, speed, cost or variety, more and more people are turning to the internet for their daily dose of news. The rise of the internet and web-based advertising has significantly stripped traditional newspaper operations of a much needed revenue source. As print circulation continues to decline, almost every major paper is streamlining its expenses, implementing cutbacks and redundancies.

In line with dwindling revenues, the profit margins have followed suit as reflected by negatively trending newspaper share prices.[1] The public has seen the writing on the wall and no longer believes that the future is between the broadsheets. If the profitability of these publications continues its slide, inevitably the papers will be forced to close their doors (Edmonds et al., 2012).

Not even the New York Times, at almost $1-billion in debt, has managed to escape the ravages of this Brave New World (Goldstein, 2009).[2] The apparent death of newspapers might prompt some to suggest that journalism as a whole is also heading for the scrapheap.

Will this type of technological disruption force journalism into early retirement, or will it instead thrust the time-honoured profession into the Brave New Digital World?

Journalism in Early History

From the earliest of times humans have been immersed in the spread of news, ideas and information for its entertainment and protective values. It is suggested that oral news systems must have arrived some tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago, and that the dissemination of news is one of the basic purposes of language (Stephens, 2007, p. 17).

News distribution in early human history was quite limited, and it wasn’t until the domestication of the horse, around 4000-3500 BCE, that the spread of news accelerated. In its earliest forms, the travellers, musicians, messengers, the local gossips and even migrants carried with them stories, legends and news of the land. Unwittingly, these people were humankind’s earliest journalists.[3]

The advent of pictograph-based writing between 3200-3500 BCE helped with bookkeeping and trade, but did little to circulate ideas and news. It wasn’t until the 2nd millennium [BCE] that the first alphabetic scripts began to appear, making it easier to record the spoken word, chronicle events and spread ideas (Olson, 2012).

Printing press from 1811

The idea of ‘Press as a Mass Medium’ didn’t take form until 4500 years later, when in 1454 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press (Lechàªne, 2012). The invention of mechanical movable type printing led to an explosion of printing activities across Europe within only a few decades. Printing had spread to no less than 270 cities in Central, Western and Eastern Europe by the end of the 15th century. As early as 1480, there were printers active in 110 different places in Germany, Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, England, Bohemia and Poland (Anderson, 1993).

By the seventeenth century, the term “newspaper” came into common use and in 1660 the Leipziger Zeitung became Europe’s first daily newspaper. The growth of newspaper publishing attracted government attention and steps were taken to limit the press and its ability to spread radical or revolutionary ideas that could undermine the established authority (Gorman & McLean, 2003).

Nineteenth & Twentieth Century Journalism

The press was gaining considerable power. So much so, that shortly after President Theodore Roosevelt took office in 1901, he began to manage the press corps by elevating his press secretary to cabinet status and initiated press conferences. But muckraking journalists were proving more difficult to control than their objective colleagues (Rivers, 1971, pp. 16–20).

Although Roosevelt wasn’t thrilled with the idea of muckraking, he did emphasize the social benefit of investigative (muckraking) reporting (Andrews, 1958, pp. 246–247).[4]

There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.

–Theodore Roosevelt

As newspapers became more established, they also began to take on the form of respected and trusted members of society. The journalist was no longer seen as a scavenger, but rather, a privileged observer of the social and political scene (Nerone & Barnhurst, 2003, p. 121).

Journalism started to see itself as having a central role in ensuring accountability in democracy by revealing details of debate in the political process and investigating the interests various positions serve. In this context, journalism was understood and justified as a watchdog on political institutions and the social processes those institutions create and defend (Stockwell, 2004).

But depending on one’s view, this is either an important component of the checks and balances that form part of modern democracies or an expedient myth promoted by the media industry (Schyns & Hansbrough, 2010).

With the invention of the Morse code, Radio, Telephone and Telex, information about events could be gathered and transmitted across great distances the very minute they occurred. The foreign correspondent could now report on events from half a world away to an eagerly waiting audience – the world had shrunk and the technology of transmission had surpassed the speed of the horse.

Consolidation and Globalization of News Media

The consolidation and globalization of news media have, to an extent, streamlined the news gathering and distribution process. Modern technology has enabled a handful of strategically located correspondents to supply the vast majority of the world’s news requirements – Reuters and Associated Press remain the most widely used sources (Gorman, 2006).

Given the costs associated with producing and distributing traditional paper-based newspapers, it’s understandable that companies tried to minimize operating costs and increase advertising income. One way of achieving these two goals was to consolidate newspapers under one roof – the rise of the conglomerates. Generally speaking, advertising revenues are directly proportional to the size of the audience, and by increasing the footprint of distribution one would expect to see an increase in profits.

Conglomeration makes good business sense but it achieves this by downsizing the workforce and diluting local content with stories that are generic and applicable across a wide audience.

With so much advertising revenue at stake, the line between journalism and public relations driven content is also being blurred – at times indistinguishable.

The Crikey “Spinning the Media” investigation, conducted in March 2010 by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the Australian Center for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), revealed that that almost 55% of Australian modern news stories were driven by some sort of public relations, or in other words, a self-serving agenda (Crikey, 2010). And given that there is no official policing of the media other than an unenforceable code of ethics, the public is frequently forced to swallow whatever it reads.

Furthermore, globalization of the news industry poses a number of problems for societies around the world. First and foremost, leaving the task of news dissemination to a handful of global organizations raises concerns as to the objectivity of the stories – whether the editors of newspapers allowed themselves to be swayed or censored by generous sponsors, or if a code of ethics underpinned their activities. Secondly, limited sources of information degrade and stifle the overall diversity of opinion. Lastly, globalization creates fewer credible organizations to engage in muckraking and policing all four of the estates.

Internet and the State of the Media

Newspapers are engaged in a ferocious fight to retain traditional advertising revenue streams by venturing onto the internet. Additionally, in an effort to stave off further declines in advertising income, they are taking their traditionally national publications onto the global market.

Online Newspaper Statistics

The BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera, as well as the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, have long aimed at an international audience. But traditional media is finding it harder and harder to compete with online-only papers or those that are flexible to international market requirements. On the 17th of March 2012, The Economist reported that the New York Times lost its top spot in comScore’s ranking of the world’s biggest newspaper websites to Britain’s Daily Mail.

In an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, Britain’s Daily Mail and The Guardian have each deployed 30 staff in the United States to create stories for its American readers. In contrast, the New York Times has done very little to appeal to a wider international audience other than creating an international version of its home page. The New York Times has always seen itself as a global newspaper and that the paper is betting its success on “solid and authoritative reporting,” said a spokeswoman for the Times.

By contrast, the much slimmer online-only Huffington Post, since its launch in 2005, has started to create a network of overseas siblings. In the past nine months it has opened offices and websites in Britain, Canada (in both English and French) and France. The HuffPo, as it’s sometimes called, is also expected to open its doors in Italy and Spain based on its successful operating model, and is in talks with potential partners in Germany, Greece, Brazil and Japan (The Economist, 2012).

While the conglomerates are cutting jobs and the decline of traditional media is hurting the journalism profession, organizations that have embraced the new media are actually creating new jobs.

Is Journalism Dying?

The technology that once enabled these mega-media empires to form is now helping independent non-Western media organizations to mature and enter the market with a fresh diversity, renewed freedom of expression and an increased number of independent information sources (Gorman, 2006).[5]

The internet has allowed us to shrink the costs associated with distribution and production, as well as exposing publications to billions of potential readers at the click of a button. Unlike traditional media, where costs of distribution increase in proportion with the number of subscribers, the internet has enabled us to distribute to an international audience at virtually no cost.

Humanity has been exhibiting journalistic tendencies for thousands of years. The development of language allowed us to express ourselves verbally, the introduction of script and the alphabet helped the transfer of information to an even wider audience. With the invention of the printing press, journalists could disseminate information on an unprecedented scale and the rise of internet publishing has only increased their reach. The journalism profession has always adapted with the times and eagerly embraced changes. The death of newspapers simply implies a change in medium, not the death of journalism.

Organizations that don’t make the transition to the internet will find it increasingly more difficult to compete with free online newspapers offering similar content. The internet has significantly decreased the costs associated with entry into the media business, giving rise to millions of blogs, op-eds, amateur newspapers and, what some would call, ‘cowboy’ journalism – poorly researched, biased and rough around the edges.

The low entry costs are also likely to increase the competition for skilled and versatile journalists who are able to work across multiple mediums: print, radio, video and online. Their skills are crucial for a publication to differentiate itself from the millions of competitors. In general, though, journalists have managed to capitalize on each technological advance to further the spread of news and ideas.

The decline of traditional newspapers is unfortunate, but ultimately a necessary step for the industry to metamorphose into something new. And although traditional newspapers may well be feeling a squeeze on revenues, their immediate pain will ultimately pave the way towards business models more suited to the twenty-first century.

The death of newspapers, in their traditional form, may be unavoidable, but there is little evidence to suggest that journalism is heading towards any sudden death. In fact, journalism is embracing the internet and this Brave New Digital World with eager and open arms.

[title photo from the cover of After Broadcast News]

Footnotes
  1. After a two-year rally, newspaper stock prices were down in 2011. Investors were disappointed in continued ad revenue declines, and in some cases worried about excessive debt. Companies are now trading at one-half to less than one-tenth of their mid-decade peak price. ^
  2. The New York Times, which is already carrying more than $1-billion in debt, announced that it will borrow up to $225-million against its Manhattan office building. ^
  3. An increasing amount of evidence supports the hypothesis that horses were domesticated in the Eurasian Steppes (Dereivka, centered in Ukraine) approximately 4000-3500 BCE. (Wikipedia contributors, n.d.) ^
  4. The term muckraker was used to refer to a writer who investigates and publishes truthful reports to perform an auditing or watchdog function, and emerged in the US after 1900. ^
  5. By 2003 CNN was available in more than 150 million homes in more than 210 countries and territories; it had some 150 correspondents in 42 international bureaux, 23 satellites and was reaching 1 billion people; in the same year BBC World was available in more than 240 million homes in approximately 200 countries and territories, with access to the resources of the BBC with its 250 correspondents worldwide and 58 international news bureaux. ^

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