Where next for a centuries-old industry?

Originally published 29/05/2015

When Rupert Murdoch said in 2005 his “rivers of gold” that existed because of the revenue provided by newspaper advertising revenue had dried up (Plunkett, 2005), it highlighted the fraught position of modern journalism. Once dominated by newspaper barons, journalism in the digital world faces its greatest challenges. The newspaper industry’s downfall, perhaps the greatest challenge to journalism in the digital age, is one of many the profession must overcome in the coming decades to ensure the survival of professional journalism. This essay looks at the 24-hour news cycle’s effect on journalism, citizen journalism and media ownership concentration, all of which have challenged journalists and media owners to think of new ways through which to connect with their audiences.

Newspapers were rarely challenged as a news source until the digital age. Though radio and television were rivals for an audience, each medium has distinct qualities not shared by the other; newspapers are for written words, radio is for audio and television is for visuals. First published in 1605 (Weber, 2006), newspapers provided safe employment for journalists for 400 years. The internet challenged this. Bernstein states “by 2002, anyone who wanted to become a columnist or journalist could go online and do so” (Burnstein, 2013. P. 443). The speed of online news quickly shifted public preference from newspaper to digital. Online media, according to McChesney (2011, p. 3-4), “made the daily newspaper look slow and unresponsive” to the public. By 2011, North American newspaper yearly profits had dropped to less than half of those reported in the pre-digital 1990s (Newspaper Association of America, 2012). The challenge for journalism was thus: how can you maintain a rich journalistic/media empire in a digital world? An answer hasn’t been found with ease; job cuts have been the quick solution. North American newsroom employee number have dropped by nearly 30% in the last decade (Jurkowitz, 2014). Slimming the workforce and piling greater responsibility on the remnants has been the knee-jerk reaction to ensure the short-term survival of the newspaper industry. When 62 editorial roles were made redundant across Fairfax Media in Australia, the director of Australian Community Media said remaining journalists would “report local news across multi-media . . . [and] be trained to write headlines, captions and fact-boxes” (Mumbrella, 2015). The demand for more work from fewer people, coupled with the rise of the 24-hour news cycle, greatly increased the challenges placed on journalists worldwide.

Born during the first Gulf War (Sambrook & McGuire, 2014), the 24-hour news cycle is the result of an increasingly connected world. 25 years later the immediacy of the internet has created a public demand for minute-by-minute updates. With websites like Twitter allowing instantaneous updates, many journalists are expected to maintain an online presence through a constant supply of information to their readers. But with greater connectivity comes greater demand for news – and increased stress on journalists; accuracy is sometimes the casualty. Van Onselen said, “[w]hereas once we checked the news in the morning and evening, now we check it by the minute” (2015a), and “[m]uch news is now repetitious, so the race for news, however slight or thin, is intense” (ibid). In No Time To Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle, a former Washington Post correspondent laments the development of 24-hour news: “The problem with this cycle . . . is that reporters have to spend so much time doing other stuff like filing in for the online version . . . that there really isn’t time to think about the story. At a time when we are making huge reductions in the number of journalists at major papers, the impact on the reporter is enormous” (Rosenberg & Feldman, 2009. P. 135). The challenge for journalists is to work out a way to provide an up-to-date news service without sacrificing quality. It’s a challenge Rosenberg and Feldman don’t think is helped by job cutting. The pair say “[c]ost cutting and newspaper expansion into the internet has the average Fleet Street reporter tripling output since 1985. Is it possible that today’s Fleet Streeters are three times better than 23 years ago? More likely just three times as stressed” (Ibid, p. 136).

“For the first time in history,” Bernstein says, “someone in possession of a unique piece of knowledge can communicate it to the whole world via any combination of three routes: blog it directly, via other bloggers, or use the mainstream traditional media” (Bernstein, 2013, p. 472). Blogging and citizen journalism are phenomenon of the digital age and have “subverted the traditional journalistic paradigm in which news is exclusively produced by professional journalists and massively disseminated by organisations to reach audiences” (Kerric, 2014). One advantage it has, Kelly says, is “it makes possible the coverage of events that the mainstream media might otherwise miss” (Kelly, 2009. P. 26).  The change wasn’t received positively by many journalistic institutions. In The four critiques of ‘citizen journalism’, Stabe (2006) notes “recent objections have included protests that citizen journalism is not really journalism at all, notably because much of what users create seems to have little to do with the broader public interest”. 2010 estimates suggested there were about 26 million people who regularly read blogs in United States (Mitch, 2010). In 2015, according to WordPress, blogs are visited each month by approximately 409 million unique readers, with as many as 18.6 billion pages being visit in that time (WordPress, 2015). Despite the figures, the mainstream media was slow to integrate citizen journalism and user-generated content into its format (Kelly, 2009, p. 21), though by 2008 Hermida and Thurman “identified nine generic formats that British newspaper websites [had] put in place to encourage contributions from the public” (Herminda & Thurman, 2008). These included: polls, message boards, have your says, comments on stories, Q&As, blogs, reader-created blogs, user media uploads and user stories (ibid). Collaboration between professional journalists and citizen journalists has improved in recent years, with Steven Waldman, senior adviser to United States Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski, claiming “there is a tremendous amount of innovation going on now among former newspaper journalists, citizen journalists and local groups” (Eggerton, 2010). Citizen journalism, says Clyde Bentley, isn’t going away (Christian, 2006) and Friedland, of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says “. . . journalism is not completely within the newsroom anymore. The centre of thinking about public life – which is essentially what good journalism is – is moving out to hundreds of thousands of people” (ibid).

A lack of media diversity in modern journalism may concern some in the media. Harding-Smith (2011) says “[h]ighly concentrated media ownership can reduce the diversity of opinions which have a chance to be aired in public and, in the worst case, can make it less likely that public interest news stories will be published”. Mass-ownership of the media raises concerns regarding impartiality of news and restrictions on journalistic freedom. Of News Ltd owner Rupert Murdoch, van Onselen said “[t]here is evidence of clear preference for right of centre politics by Murdoch, and some evidence of using his opposition to ensure his views are reflected in editorial policy” (2015b, p. 7). In Australia the prevalence of mass media ownership is highly visible, with 98% of the country’s top-three most popular newspapers owned by News Ltd or Fairfax Media Limited (van Onselen, 2015c, p. 10); in contrast, a century ago Australia’s 21 most popular newspapers were owned by 17 separate owners (ibid). The challenge for journalism, then, is maintaining impartiality and relevance without being subjected to pressure from media owners. The issue is somewhat mitigated by the internet and citizen journalism, which opens up the world to a much less limited supply of news and opinions.  Cross-media ownership laws, designed to limit the number of platforms one media corporation can have over a populace by only allowing them any two of radio, print or television, “prevent the common ownership of newspapers, television and radio broadcasting licences that serve the same region” (Parliament of Australia, 2006), their purpose to “encourage diversity in the ownership of . . . the daily press and free-to-air television and radio” (ibid). A proposal by the Australian Federal Government in 2014 to remove cross-media ownership laws (ABC News, 2014a) stands as a major challenge for Australian journalism. Legislation that would allow one media company to own “print, television and radio in the same market” (ABC, 2014b) could potentially have negative impacts on media integrity and individual journalistic freedom.

The decline of the newspaper as the most popular source of news for the public is inevitable, but the associated fear of income loss that come with the newspaper’s demise needn’t be so great; Murdoch’s “rivers of gold” (Plunkett, 2005) haven’t necessarily completely left the riverbed. In his article “Are we ready to play with pay?” Smith (2010) highlighted wholly-online companies that recorded healthy profits through subscription services; “Online, users already pay for content . . . consumers spent $5.88 billion in 2009 on digital subscriptions” (ibid). The challenge for journalism and media corporations is to offer magazine or subscription services customers want to pay for. “The question isn’t whether people will (at last) pay for content. It is whether the publishers of general news . . . can create the kinds of content and – more importantly, experiences – people are already paying for” (ibid). Subscription based services such as Netflix have shown that people are still willing to pay for online products if they are seen as worth that subscription price. For Netflix, the subscription service earnt the company $71 million (USD) in 2013 (Richwine and Maan, 2014). Though Netflix and journalism offer different products (Netflix is an entertainment television/movie program), the former has shown the popularity of online subscription services if they can catch the attention of the public. But luring people to pay for information is the challenge. Specialist publications would seem to be one of the most popular medium for written pay-per-view online and print content. BBC History magazine, with over 83,000 subscribers, made 10.45% of its overall sales from January to June 2013 through digital subscriptions (Sedghi, 2013). New Scientist, a British-based weekly specialist magazine, boasted 29.76% of its 26,000 sales during that period through digital subscriptions. News journalism as we know it is unlikely prosper online as it did in the newspaper age, but the path to unlocking 21st century news media profits might lay in diversifying specialist content. Specialist material and subscriptions could even subsidise news journalism if need be. While moguls provide an affordable, entertaining written-and-photographic platform, not dissimilar to Netflix in its availability and (hopefully) demand, those profits can help maintain an established online newsroom. With increased funding, these online newsrooms might employ more journalists, publish more stories, receive more website ‘hits’ and, in turn, garner more advertising revenue.

Australian online magazine subscription service iSubscribe claims “over 2 million subscriptions” since 2000 (iSubscribe, 2015a). iSubscribe New Zealand claims to have sold “in excess of over $200 million worth of subscriptions” (iSubscribe, 2015b). But creating subscription services people want to pay for isn’t as easy as taking a print service, turning it online and slapping a price tag onto it. “So many sites seem to be a ‘cash grab’ for advertiser dollars,” says Ross (Kalman, 2012), “It’s important that whatever content is published, that it’s relevant to the audience you’re trying to reach, that it is written by writers who have passion and knowledge for the subject, and that it offers something new to the user”. Subscription success is about balancing demand and quality, with price and availability. Tablet ownership in the United States for people between 12- and 64-years-old grew from 20% in 2011 to 52% by 2013 (TabTimes, 2014), confirming that there are more than enough platforms ready to be supplied with digital subscriptions of specialist online magazine subscriptions. At the time of writing, a yearly online subscription to Time Magazine costs AU$130 (iSubscribe, 2015c), while purchasing 54-individual print magazines will set the consumer back AU$378 (ibid); a National Geographic Magazine 12-month online subscription saves the consumer $144.80 (iSubscribe, 2015d); a 24-issue online subscription to Vogue saves the consumer 33% off the recommended retail price (Magshop, 2015). Consumer savings are clear, but making digital subscriptions popular is a massive challenge. The popularity spike in devices over the last decade may provide an opportunity for media outlets to reel in profits more akin to previous decades. If digital news journalism is to survive, finding an avenue in which consumers are willing to pay for publications is crucial. Mulligan (2013) states, “All [popular media] companies [will] have to make the transition from being retail businesses to being subscription businesses”.

What do the public want? Is the billion-dollar question that would have Rupert Murdoch, James Packer and NBC Chairman Ted Harbert knocking on your door if you could answer it. American Association of Retired Persons magazine, a sort of cover-all magazine for the over-50s, recorded over 22 million sales per edition for its ”AARP The Magazine” publication (Said, 2013). A second publication by AARP, “AARP Bulletin”, records similar figures per issue (ibid). Sales for these magazines from June 2013 to June 2014 rose by 4.1% and 2.2% respectively (Lulofs, 2014). Niche publication American Rifleman recorded an 11.6% sales growth over the same period (ibid), while Better Homes and Gardens reported meagre 0.2% growth (ibid). The growth trend has been far from consistent, though; during the same period Reader’s Digest sales dropped 35.3% (ibid), Taste of Home dropped 22% (ibid), National Geographic dropped 10.7% (ibid) and Time Magazine, surely one of the world’s most respected weekly news magazines, fell 0.4% (ibid). There are growing markets for certain magazines and dwindling markets for others. The trend suggests a move away from home design publications and news magazines; even Time news stories can be found on the internet with enough searching. The key may be in the niche market: in the United Kingdom, Slimming World Magazine, a magazine that published by the self-proclaimed “most advanced slimming organisation in the UK” (Slimmingworld.com, 2015) recorded a 6.9% growth from 2013 to 2014 (BetterRetailing.com, 2015); Cbeebies Weekly recorded 41% sales growth from the same period (ibid); Lego Legends of Chima sales rose 25.2% (ibid); Disney’s Princess rose 8.8% (ibid), while publications such as House Beautiful and Good Housekeeping rose 9.2% and 5% respectively. In the United Kingdom, at least, there is a big market for children’s and women’s magazines. It’s dependent on the market and customer allegiance. Finding the niche the public wants is the key to finding profits. In the United States American Rifleman has taken off; where are Australian magazines for fans of craft beers, for example? Finding the community niche and plugging that magazine void could be a major profit finder for media organisations who’ve not yet branched into magazine publishing, and could provide the profits which could secure a solid future for digital media and online journalism.

The challenges facing journalism in the modern world are legion and have come about as a result of a worldwide increase in connectivity. Fuelled by the internet and the development of “smart” devices, this connectivity has left consumers demanding high-quality, instant news straight to their phones, tablets or computers. The growth of online media has seen the birth of citizen journalism, which provides on-the-scene Joe Public with an ability to spread news, instead of requiring qualified, employed journalists. The internet has seen the demise of newspaper sales and revenue, signalling the slow end of a 400-year-old institution that’s served the community somewhere in the world at least once a day for that period. The 24-hour news cycle places ever increasing demands and expectations on journalists, and the concentration of media ownership threatens potential conflicts of interests between employer and employee. But these changes do not necessarily signal the demise of professional journalism; the industry needs to find modern alternatives. High-quality, relevant, niche magazine services may provide the key to keeping the media industry and journalism afloat in the future. The world will become a digital-only platform eventually, meaning a mature evolutionary approach to securing journalism’s future is crucial. Are subscription services the answer? We’ll have to wait and see.


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