Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I Want 'My News', Now and for Free!

Much has been written of late about the state of the newsprint industry. The US market appears to be in free fall, with the operative word on many tongues being ‘free’. Journalists are losing their jobs, papers are up for sale, or sailing closer to the wind and the advertising revenue, which once made this sector so lucrative is either drying up or electing to go elsewhere. Newsprint publishers are ceasing to print on paper and going free online.

Does this mean that newspapers will disappear tomorrow – No? Does it mean that some will fall – almost certain?

Newsprint has a long history which has local, regional and global pressures. What once was local copy in Malaysia, a city in Scotland, national press in Australia is now available instantly to us all globally, 24 x 7. Services such as Google aggregate the news and segment it to fit our tastes, alerts constantly feed our favourite key words. Journalism is fast becoming democratised, where every blog, web article is becoming a potential news feed and the letter to the editor is often no longer mediated, but instantly posted and encouraged.

It seems a long time from the birth of the tabloid at the beginning of the 20th century. This explosion was fuelled by mass literacy, world events and the public’s insatiable appetite to read ‘spicy news’. In the late 20th century restrictive practices were broken in the UK and everywhere we saw the rise of the free local paper. Established local papers were driven to change or die. The the whole advertising model came under threat from the free classifieds such as Craiglists and the Google online ad machine. In the UK market, the downturn in the economy has hit the spending of big newsprint advertisers such as estate agents and the motor trade.

The increased demand in recent years by advertisers for 100% colour resulted in UK publishers investing in newspaper presses, but now publisher/printers are looking to close shifts or working with other newspaper Groups to close presses altogether. Many UK publishers are now looking to reduce costs by outsourcing their production facilities overseas. To compound this further, UK newsprint has just seen one of its largest cost increases in recent years.

Mass connectivity and technology literacy is now fuelling change. Increasingly everyone is connected and online. The person on the street with a mobile, has often became the photographer and sometimes even the journalist.

In an attempt to create loyalty and broaden their appeal UK papers in recent years have started to trade on their brand. Bookclubs acting as white label stores, glossy inserts full of gadgets and special offers, clubs from wine to dating were all born, CDs and DVDs were enclosed as special ‘extras’. Is this the future of newsprint or merely an attempt to raise revenues and cross subsidy?

Hard economics have started to bite and along with technology are opening up both new opportunities and new threats. Newspapers, so long a safe and predicable media has failed to respond. Readers have become more discerning and eclectic, wanting not general, but ‘My News’. Today the industry appears like rabbits frozen and caught in the glare of the digital headlights. Layoffs, closures, debt are all hovering like vultures around many well known names. Journalism is torn between authoritative column inches and democratised blogs. We have previously written about the cartoonist, who are now changing their own model in response to the pressure on their strips.

Papers such as the Kansan in Kansas City may point the way forward for a community press , The New York Times and others have to grapple with the challenges of general or what is now ‘commoditised news’ and although it seems that the ‘specialist’ papers such as the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal have a captive model based on their insights and commentary, we note that 80 jobs went yesterday at the FT.

The one thing we can be sure of is that the landscape and business model is changing. ‘My News’ is real, ‘Free’ is real, many want their news ‘now’ and fed to them 24 x 7.

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