• Thursday, Aug 13, 2020
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OP-ED: Are newspapers dying?

  • Published at 08:44 pm July 27th, 2020
Newspaper Laptop Journalism
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Or are they simply changing with time?

I started my career as a newspaper reporter in 2008. When I was applying for the job, I consulted a teacher of mine about the prospect of a newspaper reporter. She had told me that she thought newspaper jobs had no future and advised me to go for a television reporting job instead. 

As writing is my passion, I did not listen to her and joined an English language newspaper as a staff reporter. I can say a newspaper reporting job was not that bad as described by my teacher.

After one decade, my teacher might be right in some senses. Senior journalists, journalism scholars, newspaper owners, policymakers all are talking about the future of newspapers in the last few years. And many are not hopeful about the future.

A few months ago, Warren Buffett’s long-time business partner at Berkshire Hathaway Inc, Charlie Munger, reportedly said: Daily newspapers “are all going to die,” as technological advances cause revenue to dry up.” 

He is not alone to predict the bleak future of newspapers. Many are predicting the same. Statistics may also support their claim. 

According to Pew Research Center, US newspaper circulation fell in 2018 to its lowest level since 1940, the first year with available data. It said that the total daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) was an estimated 28.6 million for weekday and 30.8 million for Sunday in 2018. 

It also pointed out that those numbers were down 8% and 9%, respectively, from the previous year. Newspaper revenues also declined dramatically between 2008 and 2018. 

Advertising revenue fell from $37.8bn in 2008 to $14.3bn in 2018, which was a 62% decline. Also, newsroom employment fell nearly 40% between 1994 and 2014. The scenario is more or less the same in many other parts of the world.

Even if we do not buy the idea that the newspaper is dying, there cannot be any denying that newspapers are struggling. The struggle is mainly for two reasons. First, the present generation does not consume news from the print newspaper medium. 

There is a famous saying that when a newspaper publishes an obituary, it means it has lost a consumer. 

People who are still buying print newspapers are in between the 40s-70s; youths do not purchase print newspapers. The second challenge for newspapers is companies like Craigslist and other digital platform eating up newspaper advertisement revenues. When someone can post a classified advertisement free of cost on Craigslist, why should he or she waste money on newspapers?

Two schools of thought about the future of newspapers

One group is extremely pessimistic and sometimes cynical. They have all the theories and prophecies. Some of them even think that newspapers are already dead. 

On the other hand, a group of scholars and journalists believe that the newspaper might not be in the same position it used to be in the past but it will not die. Circulation and revenue might be reduced but it will exist. I find this latter thought more realistic than the former.

Let me explain why I think so. While the newspaper circulation is falling all over the world, the news is thriving. Many studies say that people are absorbing more news now ever before.  

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California points out that Americans are absorbing five times more information a day than in 1986. It means that people love news and while they are using social media sites, they are mostly talking about news and many are sharing news produced by newspapers. 

I am an avid social media user. I always try to observe what are the issues on social media. My findings show that people are mainly talking about news on social media and the sources of most of these news items are newspapers.

Second, when we say the newspaper is dying or struggling, there is a problem with the idea. The print newspaper is struggling but online newspapers or the online versions of newspapers are flourishing. 

The New York Times reported in February this year that it tops 5 million subscriptions. The news organization has passed $800m in annual digital revenues. It also said that most of that $800.8m -- more than $420m -- came from news subscribers. That is, people are paying for news. The company has a goal of reaching 10 million digital subscribers by 2025. 

In 2019, the Guardian newspaper reported that the news organization achieved “its financial break-even target, as revenue rose to £224.5m in the last financial year, aided by growth in digital revenues and increased contributions from readers.” 

It also said that the media group confirmed “preliminary figures showing that its main Guardian News and Media subsidiary recorded an operational profit of £800,000 for the first time in many years.” As such, we can say that print newspapers are struggling but digital newspapers are not.

And there is a problem with the death of newspaper narrative. While talking about the struggles of newspapers, we tend to overlook that in the last few decades all industries have gone through changes due to technological advancement. 

It can best be understood if we go to any nearby bank. The banking system is much more different than it used to be five or 10 years ago. The same is true for the transport industry and many other manufacturing industries. 

Instead of saying that newspapers are dying, we can say newspapers are changing. 

Newspaper companies with dynamic leadership are not only surviving but also making good profits.

Mushfique Wadud is a journalist currently pursuing his PhD in journalism at the University of Colorado, US.

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