Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The future of newspapers

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.

21 comments:

The Great Simpleton said...

Systems are being developed to make micro payments possible and profitable. These will be ISP based and they will collect the fees and distribute them according to content use by individuals.

As this happens it will be easier for newspapers and other content providers to charge for premium content. You might find that it isn't much, say a few pence for dozen articles. The FT is already looking at this model.

Furthermore the improvement in ereaders and there connection to the web means that for a few pence a day people will be able to have their own newspaper compiled for them and ready to read when they get up.

So, whilst I agree that we are in for a major change I think the quality end of the MSM may well survive, its the cheaper end that will suffer.

Other than that I agree with your analysis.

Mark Reckons said...

If I have the choice between clicking on a free article (say from Google or other free source) or clicking on one where I will be charged some money (even if it is only a few pence) I will likely choose the free one.

I can't remember who said it but there is a quote somewhere that says the difference between 0 and 1 pence is much, much greater than the difference between 1 pence and 1 pound.

William Shaw said...

I agree with nearly all of this except for the idea that this would mean less outrageous payments of columnists.

Quite the opposite. A single highly paid high profile columnist is a much more cost-effective way to produce a readership than a well-trained newsroom. I think we're going to see more of this, not less.

The fact is, journalism is becoming decentralised. As print declines, I think there's a significant opportunity for institutions - NGOs especially - to start commissioning their own journalism , with all the pitfalls that implies, and simply adding it to the flow of new stories that exist out there.

This blurs the line between advocacy and journalism, but, fingers crossed, the best journalism will rise to the top and reflect best on the standards of the institution that commissions it. Like it or not, I think we're going to have to move into a future where independent journalism is hard to come by, but at least the internet allows us the tools to judge each piece of work separately on its own merits.

Purple Man said...

What someone needs to do, is offer Dale, Guido and the top bloggers jobs as writers at an online "blogger" newspaper where they all write articles, and make the thing pay-for content. They'd rake it in.

It'll happen eventually.

Matt Wardman said...

>This blurs the line between advocacy and journalism

I'd suggest that this is one of the great weakspots of the British Media already.

>What someone needs to do, is offer Dale, Guido and the top bloggers jobs as writers at an online "blogger" newspaper where they all write articles, and make the thing pay-for content. They'd rake it in.

That's been tried, and not usually worked - unless it represents a transition by the authors to paid journalism for part of their output. The challenge is that it dilutes the platform from which the individual is aleady making a living, and it only works if those two factors stay in *creative* tension.

Perhaps some of the "headhunted by the MSM" bloggers are good examples of bloggers being paid, such as Clive Davis at the Spectator and Baby_Barista at the Times. Both moved fully in house.

I'd see the tension as being between the blogger "barter" system, and the MSM "paid-for" system. I don't think we've seen an effective synthesis yet.

Matt Wardman said...

PS The major question in my mind at the moment is whether the "quality" end of the press is actually very good.

asquith said...

People will pay for specialised media. I, for example, am a subscriber to The Ecologist, which has recently taken all its operations online, & on whose website certain sections can only be viewed by paying customs.

Some form of higher-end commentary magazine or some such, featuring worthwhile professional journalists, could easily exist online on such a basis.

As for the utter shite Murdoch pumps out, I can't imagine anything bothering.

It would be quite worrying in terms of information exchange for quality stuff not to be available for free. But I can imagine professional journalists, academics & other professionals having their own blog (this of course happens now) while charging for some of their articles & people being willing to stump up.

I do actually quite like print as a medium (I read books relentlessly as well) but even if it didn't exist, professional journalism would.

Additionally, a lot of sites such as the Huffington Post either have wealthy patrons or generous donations from readers to keep them going. More than a few people will put a bit in their favourite blogger's tip jar.

But the power will shift towards the individual & we will no longer have to passively absorb the wisdom of a heaven-born caste of journalists, especially because it's now widely known (thanks to blogging & also the efforts of the likes of Nick Davies) that they aren't as superior as they imagine themselves to be.

asquith said...

On about what I wrote in my last paragraph. Can you imagine how outraged some members of the journalist class were when they first started getting negative comments? It must have really got under their skin. Excellent :)

Oranjepan said...

You raise a lot of interesting points, Mark, and I particualrly agree that it is technological acceleration which is driving the changes.

Asquith draws on an interesting point about magazines as specialist information providers and I think diversification in media will continue as the different sorts of media continue to proliferate.

What's with the industry's conservative vision of newspapers anyway?

Newspapers evolved from political pamphlets when a market for regular readership was identified and tapped. Before the dailies the news sheets were printed on an ad hoc basis trying to keep up with demand and took a largely magazine format with regular features. The way I see it electronic media is simply reversing this evolutionary arc to add to the wealth of information resources - just as oratory became more refined with the onset of the printed word and literacy, so too will print need to refine itself as an artform to survive the onset of interactivity.

I personally predict ongoing revival of the factual narrative book as a format (investigative polemic such as The Plan, Flat Earth News... living biographies from candidates such as Sarkozy and Obama etc) to complement magazines, newswires and commentary.

Newspapers combined all these functions in hegemony for almost two centuries, restraining free access to information with their limited space. They will survive, but in much more chastened fashion.

When Murdoch moved to his castle in Wapping he signalled his intent to move from being dictator of fleet street to monarch of the media, it was seen as part of the information revolution, but now the revolution is turning back on him just as he reaches for global dominance.

Excuse the historical allusion, but I think it makes for a good comparison!

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Mark

Whether you like Mr Murdoch or not, he has a point in that free content cannot be sustainable forever. I subscribe to a weekly newsletter that comes in two formats. The free version has 4 articles and adverts. The paid version has 8 articles and no adverts. You pays your money and you takes your choice. If Murdoch’s plan is successful, you can be sure that other dead tree newspapers will follow suit. Murdoch doesn’t make many mistakes in business so it is unlikely that his proposals are merely a knee jerk reaction to declining revenues.

I can also see Blogger and Word Press doing the same thing in the future: free blogs but with adverts of their choosing, or pay for the service and get rid of the ads.

The priority for newspapers is to report the news, whereas bloggers tend merely to comment on it. Of course there is some overlap. It was Guido Fawkes who broke the story on his blog about Damien McBride - which was then picked up by the mainstream media. And, of course, there are many blogs which cater for niche markets, e.g. reporting on the activities of local councils, where bloggers have become citizen journalists.

But the majority of the most popular politically based blogs are providing commentary only, and they do so in a way which national newspapers cannot. Bloggers can discuss a particular news item for days on end in intricate detail. It is not uncommon for Guido to publish an article and have over 1,000 comments posted in response.

The nature of the internet means that information will always be available “free” if you know where to look, but as Asquith suggests, some people are already willing to pay for specialised media, and the same principle can easily be extended to newspaper columnists.

With advances in technology, there will certainly be an increase in the number of people who download newspapers to hand held devices, but I think it will be many years before the traditional printed paper meets its end.

Mark Reckons said...

I think the comments about "specialised" media are very good and I don't doubt there will still be a market for this sort of content. I probably should have been clearer in my article that I was referring to the generalised press.

As Oranjepan's history lesson above points out, newspapers grew out of the pamphlet tradition and fulfilled a need of the time (albeit it was a very long time) but that need is now fading.

DCMD - Murdoch is doing what he feels he needs to do. You can say that he is a great businessman and rarely makes mistakes but he is trying to attack a digital problem with an analogue solution. His expertise is in the print media world but the rules have all changed. Time will tell whether I am right or he is right about paid for generalised news online.

If Blogger and Wordpress decide to fill the blogs with adverts or charge then more free alternatives will come along to displace them.

I also take issue with your comment about bloggers only ever providing comment. Of course there is a fair bit of that but some blogs (especially locally based ones) do provide a form of news. I have even done it myself on occasion, reporting on events I have been involved with albeit I will usually thrown my view in at the end (but this is no different to "The Sun Says" inserts for example). The practitioners are usually not journalistically trained of course but as I said in the main post, the profession of journalism was created in a very different world to the one we now inhabit.

asquith said...

"I probably should have been clearer in my article that I was referring to the generalised press."

Do you think there are any general journalists, or those who maybe have a few main interests but are working for general news publications, who command a following of their own?

If they were aggregated in something like "Prospect" or some such, which was posted online, people might well pay if it was the only way of accessing their insights.

Of course they'd have to be very good for this to happen, & people would have to make a beeline for them as opposed to other information sources, which rules the majority of hacks out.

This is why the likes of Janet Street Paw-er hate the 'sphere!

Matt Wardman said...

@purpleman

This service, for examples, will create and send out a PDF newsletter from any content you tell it to scrape in a template you design online.

It will dodge excerpt RSS feeds by parsing your blog page.

They are a touch coy on the legals "users of this site may not break any laws", although they are pretty good in including the full author details.

http://www.zinepal.com/

I currently deal with scrapers by doing an excerpt feed, making sure to include a backlink in the excerpt, and jumping on anyone who is too egregious; that is no longer sufficient, so I'll need a new strategy - I may switch to full feeds.

Matt

Matt Wardman said...

I have created and uploaded this in the few minutes since the last comment:

http://www.mattwardman.com/downloads/wardman-zine-trial.pdf

This includes comments.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Mark

In terms of general news, I don’t think Murdoch or the other press barons would be stupid enough to try and charge for content, when that same content is available for free elsewhere, but I definitely think there could be a market for special features and columnists.

I buy the Telegraph on Saturday specifically to read Simon Heffer’s column. Yes I could read it for free on-line, but the Telegraph web site is slow and irritating. If I could pay a small amount to read his column advert free, I would certainly consider it. And I like the idea of cherry picking columnists from various papers to create a personalised newspaper. Whether enough money could be made from subscriptions to pay for the service, only time will tell.

Point taken about local based blogs. My own blog ‘Not The Barnet Times’ often reports on local stories before the press, but what goes on in Barnet is of little interest to someone living in Scotland. The most popular political blogs deal with national issues and most bloggers simply do not have the resources of the MSM to dig up scoops.

As for Blogger and Word Press, you have to ask for how long they can continue to provide their basic service for free. Surely there has to be a pay back for them at some point? There are, of course, other blog providers but the world cannot run on free forever. If another company wanted to seriously challenge Blogger, they would need bucket loads of cash to do it.

Mark Reckons said...

DCMD - in response to come of your points:

In terms of general news, I don’t think Murdoch or the other press barons would be stupid enough to try and charge for content, when that same content is available for free elsewhere, but I definitely think there could be a market for special features and columnists.

Not convinced about this. It depends how special. Often I find these features are filler. I occasionally come across an interesting feature but 90-odd percent of it to me is dross. The special stuff will likely survive in pay form of some sort as I conceded in an earlier comment, but can Murdoch seriously keep a generalised operation going on a business model based on this?


I buy the Telegraph on Saturday specifically to read Simon Heffer’s column. Yes I could read it for free on-line, but the Telegraph web site is slow and irritating.

Slower and more irritating than having to walk down to the shop, find the paper you want (assuming it's in stock), paying for it, walking back home, getting your hands covered in ink and then later having to dispose of it? For you, the answer to all of this might be yes but there is a generation coming who will never have done any of this and will get all their content from a computer or hand-held device. It is a dying paradigm.


As for Blogger and Word Press, you have to ask for how long they can continue to provide their basic service for free. Surely there has to be a pay back for them at some point? There are, of course, other blog providers but the world cannot run on free forever. If another company wanted to seriously challenge Blogger, they would need bucket loads of cash to do it.

There will always be an open source/free alternative. If Blogger alienates its user base with adverts or charges that are too high they will switch. The default mode of the internet is free and you have to have a compelling offering to break out of this. My understanding is that WordPress is not actually free so there is clearly some small scope for charging but I use Blogger (you can see what camp I fall into) and I do not know exactly how WP's charges work.

A challenger to Blogger would not need bucketloads of cash. The internet does not work like that. The free software movement is forever creating free alternatives to paid for software. It is usually created by people, often IT professionals in their spare time. the only issue I can see is hosting which Blogger currently provides but I am sure there are ways round that to allow users' existing ISP hosting packages to be utilised.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Mark

I don't want to drag this out interminably! I take your point that times they are a changing! I am of an age where I have lived through the complete birth and death of a technology (VCRs) and, as you say, the rate of change of technology is incredible.

For me, walking to the newsagent is part of a daily routine (and God knows I need the exercise!) and there is something comforting about reading a broadsheet paper at the breakfast table. But I accept that the yoof of today are not stuck in a time warp!

The Observer is rumoured to be on the brink of closure, so perhaps this is indeed the beginning of the end for printed papers. But if you are right that Murdoch’s plan to charge for on-line content will ultimately fail, what next? He’s not going to keep pouring money into a black hole. Will he give up the web site altogether and stick with the paper until it dies, or look for another solution? I just can’t see him allowing these losses to continue.

We obviously need to pay journalists for their endeavours, however the news is reported. But if publishers are not able to generate sufficient revenue to keep their business afloat, what then? State sponsored news for the masses? I hope not!

Mark Reckons said...

DCMD - I agree we should probably draw a line under this soon (although I have enjoyed the debate).

I think the truth is that nobody knows what will happen. I don't know ultimately what Murdoch et. al. will do but I really do think that his pay-wall idea is doomed to failure.

You are right that he will not keep pouring money into a black hole forever. He may seek a new solution, or he (or his successors) may withdraw from the market altogether. Hard to tell.

I suspect journalism will continue in some form but perhaps as I said as a part time endeavour practised by people as well as other things they do. It's already happening with blogs etc. Citizen journalism is coming of age. Perhaps that will morph into something that eventually replaces the current professional journalism model altogether, or perhaps it will be some hybrid of the two. Or perhaps something very different will emerge.

However, what I would say is that we should try and think well outside the box (BINGO!) on this as the fundamental rules have all changed and continue to do so. No industry should have special protection if it cannot survive. Something else (probably eventually better) will replace it if there is a real need and desire for what it provides. Just because we can't fully imagine what it will look like right now, does not mean it won't happen.

Oranjepan said...

Absolutely, why passive observers would think they could second guess a mogul of the stature of Murdoch is beyond me.

There is still plenty of profit in reporting, and I can't believe for the life of me there will ever be a day when nobody wants to know anything more about the world than they can see for themselves.

But it is interesting to chart how reporting has played down and up to its' readership at various times and how this directly corresponds with the viability of the business.

So ultimately the inability to earn money and keep afloat is more directly tied to the company philosophy than anything else - if the company approach is failing then it is their business philosophy which is wrong.

It's no use blaming the technology as there are plenty of people and groups who have learnt to understand the process and put it to use in an effective way - how soon before News Corp tries to buy Huff Post?

We are already seeing some market consolidation as crossovers between on- and offline reporting begin to occur, but this itself represents myriad challenges - more or less hard news or celebrity gossip and inconsequential flannel? Greater breadth of coverage in warzones etc at the edges of civilisation, or just greater depth in the modern societies where everyone is hooked up online?

Ultimately what we will pay for reflects an underlying truth - are we more interested in ourselves, or the consequences of our actions on other people who we'll only encounter when it's too late?

Eight years ago today and the ramifications of those events should be a timely reminder.

David said...

"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'm not sure about this. I think the decline may well stabilise, as there is a very different experience to reading a paper physically to reading it online. For the same reason that I think books will probably survive, I think newspapers will too in the physical format.

"Maybe as time goes on, journalism will become less and less a profession and more something that some people do some of the time."

Maybe, but there will always be a market for quality. How many blogs do you come across where the majority of content is complete rubbish?

David said...

@Matt:"I'd suggest that this is one of the great weakspots of the British Media already."

It's hardly exclusive to the British media. We could be worse -- look at the state of media in the US.