There has been a lot of discussion in the last few years about the future of newspapers. The advent of the internet with online news (via services like Google news), Twitter and the rise of citizen journalism through blogging has thrown into question the long term viability of our current model.
The truth is that none of us can really know what is going to happen and how the media landscape will look in 5 or 10 years time, let alone 20 or 50 years. However we can look at the current trends and try to discern from them what will and won't work as we move forward which could help to inform this debate.
For the purposes of this post I am going to discount physical paper based sales of newspapers which are in long term decline. Whilst they may survive in some niche and/or local form, the huge cost of production and distribution of physical papers when compared with the zero cost of online equivalents will surely lead to their demise as a mass dissemination mechanism over the time frame being discussed.
I will start with Rupert Murdoch's recent announcement that he intends to move all his online news content behind a pay-wall. So far there has been no detail of exactly what this will entail but I am going to stick my neck out here and say that whatever model Murdoch comes up with will ultimately fail.
The internet is built on links. The system it uses is called "Hypertext Transfer Protocol" (that's what the HTTP you see at the start of web pages means) and hypertext is the traditional name for these links. Google for example uses links between websites to determine their rankings. If you move content behind a pay-wall the first thing that will happen is that your traffic will drop severely. Culturally, the internet is now almost universally seen as a "free" medium and most people are not willing to pay anything at all for content. The second thing that will happen is that people will stop linking to you. At the moment, The Times and The Sun are linked to from all over the place on the web. Once the content can only be accessed through payments, there will be little point in linking to it any more. This will then become a downward spiral as you fall down the rankings of search engines like Google, thus less people know about you, hence less future subscribers.
At the same time as all of this is going on, blogs will be reporting about issues and giving opinion and content to the world for free. Services like Twitter will be used by millions to communicate with each other, indeed it is already rivalling news services as a means of breaking stories (I found out about the death of Michael Jackson for example on Twitter before the BBC had even reported it).
So if payment systems won't work as a viable model for newspapers, how about advertising? Advertising is already used by newspaper websites but there are some problems with it, the principal one being that it does not bring in anywhere near enough revenue to support the cost of maintaining the site and its content. Another one is that if they are too intrusive, people very quickly get tired of them and your visitor numbers can be adversely affected. Of course if they are too unobtrusive then they are next to worthless. It is a difficult balance to strike. Content providers are not as in control of how users consume online media as they are in say TV or traditional print media.
Taking the above into account, I can discern a few straws in the wind which lead me to think that the way forward will be as follows.
Firstly, newspapers will have to get by on less money than they do now. I cannot see any way around this. The competition from blogs and other free online sources has already reduced the money available to them and this will continue. The days of very highly paid newspaper executives and star columnists earning hundreds of thousands of pounds will one day be viewed as an historic curiosity. However in their favour is that once the physical distribution media are put to one side, the cost of distribution for newspapers also falls to zero. They still have in their favour the fact that they will have some very skilled people available to them who should be better informed and connected than most bloggers. They should also generally be better at structuring and writing the content. It is just that the main premium these services used to command was down to scarcity and that advantage is now gone.
Secondly, I think that the source of this money will largely come from advertising but that it is likely to be better targeted and customised. At the moment if I go to a newspaper website I will probably see a banner advert that everyone who is viewing that site is seeing. Eventually I can see this method being replaced by smarter adverts that are targeted at me based upon what I have read and perhaps what I have indicated to the service provider that I wish to know about. There are privacy issues here which are outside the scope of this post but unlike newspapers or broadcast media, the possibility of targeting in this way exists online and I feel this will be exploited. The result of this will be to increase the revenue from online advertising to some extent from where we are now.
Thirdly, I think we will see a blurring of the lines between professional and amateur journalism. We are already seeing this happening anyway. Many bloggers have written articles for the regional and national press and many journalists have blogs of their own. As Clay Shirky points out in his book "Here Comes Everybody" journalism has only been considered a profession up until now because it has required a specialism of effort and access to resources that could only be provided on a business size scale. Of course now, anybody with a computer and an internet connection can set up a blog for free and be communicating with the world in a matter of minutes. Maybe as time goes on, journalism will become less and less a profession and more something that some people do some of the time.
The final point I wish to make is to echo what I said at the start. I have had a stab here at trying to divine what will happen based upon what I have seen so far but 10 years ago how many would have predicted the success of Twitter, a system that restricts you to 140 character communications? 20 years ago how many would have predicted the rise of blogs? 50 years ago how many would have predicted the internet itself? The technological acceleration continues apace and will be much faster in the next 50 years than it was in that last 50. Therefore I confidently predict that there will be other advances and inventions that nobody is thinking of right now that will impact upon this area over the time-frame I have discussed.
One thing that I am certain of though is that it will be an exciting time to be alive and engaged with this ever changing and improving model of human communication.