The arrival of the World Wide Web in the empire of journalism has led to uncertainty and confusion, unless someone is clear whether this change should be a source of hope or desperation. There seems to be consensus only around a major contradiction: that we live in the best of times for journalism and also the worst.
There has never been a better time to make written journalism, and there has never been a worse to earn a living out of it. There are more opportunities and market than ever before, but less income based on industry trends. The decline trend is experienced across major national newspaper such as the Washington Post, publisher of the newspaper and Newsweek magazine, which reported back in 2009 a fourth- quarter profit fell by 77 percent as advertising sales declined and a wrote down the value of some assets. The trend is higher in United States, where it is often where we see major trends to start happening before we see the impact in the rest of the world. The picture is not looking very promising since the average number of newspapers sold has fallen from 62 million to 49 million since the Internet launched back in 1990s and it started to become accessible to all. Many newspapers have been forced to stop printing on paper due to profit loss. In the same period, the number of readers of digital journalism at United States has promoted from zero to 75 million. In the other hand revenue generated from advertising, which is the primary revenue of journalism on paper, has reduced profits dramatically, which has resulted in large amounts of dismissals or, for those who have had more luck, of early retirement. An interesting fact in this process is that there are actually many more readers, but a terrible pressure on the money and resources. For this reason the Post and The New York Times have lost money since 2008 for the first time in 50 years and based on industry forecasters with a pessimist outlook, predict that many more problems are to come. And although the same is true on almost all sectors of the economy, the difference lies in that the business of journalism has received a double shock since it is also being impacted by the revolution of the Internet. The technology advancements and innovations have been some of the drivers of what we called as globalization which is helping in many aspects of our society but at the same time has created a global crisis which is accelerating the inevitable impact of the digital revolution. There are many industry experts who agree that there is no force capable of preventing the extinction of the journalism, not only on paper, but as a concept, but in the other hand there are also many who believe that it will just disappear in the way that we know it to become purely local journalism kind of Facebook or even just become newspapers of a greater global reach. But the big questions that nobody seems to be able to answer; how can we continue making profit with journalism? Or would it just disappear? It is important to look at the big picture since this is something more than just the survival of a sector from our economy. Newspapers have played a central role in society over the past 200 years. They affect by influencing in the power of governments, the money from the companies and the entertainment of our society. For that same reason many of those same groups have also debated what will the future be like? In general there are three main groups coming up with their understanding of what the future holds for journalism: one that understands the way we know newspaper during the last 200 years will totally disappear, the other one is the one that believes it will re-invent and make important changes and adjust, adapt and embrace new trends, and the other one which is not clear what really the future will hold. Clay Shirky, who is an American writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, is very sure that there is really not much that can be done. He claims; “There is no model to replace what Internet has just destroyed.” It is very clear that media communication has been at the heart of the revolution, and the challenges generated by the introduction of the Internet, and although it was obvious during the last two decades that they had to adapt and change, they have not been cleared on what the future business model of journalism in the digital era should look like. The only thing which is clear is that the current business model of journalism cannot be preserved.
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In the other group we have people like Bill Keller, director of The New York Times, who urges to review all the options, and put everything to the test. Based on experts forecasts, the future newspaper will become a mixture of printed and online, where content growth online compensate the decline of print media. Another industry expert is Earl J. Wilkinson, executive director of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association. Wilkinson is more conservative and has come up to the conclusion that “the death of the newspaper is one of the great exaggerations stemming from the economic collapse of today”. Another industry expert is Philip Bennett, who has conducted research for The Washington Post to investigate digital formulas to prevent the disappearance of the journalism business, and he is not in agreement that “nothing, nothing works”. He said: “I believe that the era of the newspaper is finished,” “that the debate should focus not on the survival of the newspaper, but in the survival of journalism as we have understood”.
The United State’s discussion on the future of journalism is more negative, but it is important to keep in mind that it is also here in US where more people have access to the internet. A similar phenomenon is observed in the United Kingdom. To go to the other extreme, in China, India and Africa, where access to the network is still reserved for a privileged minority, the debate isn’t so alarming, and the role of journalism the way we have always knew it, is still very viable. What is happening in United States should serve as a warning about what will happen in Europe and the rest of the world. There is no reason to suppose that if large American newspapers for nearly 200 years closed and are now transitioning to online media, that this won’t be a trend that we could see across other countries. There have been other industry experts who believe in the importance to track and understand public reading patterns. They believe that in order to become more effective in the industry and start capturing revenue, it will be critical to print more systematic, and with more content flexibility. They add that on certain days the newspaper may concentrate on certain issues; for example Mondays can be dedicated to have more space starting with the first page, to sports. “Newspapers will be leaving behind its practice of losing money in the lazy days and concentrate its resources on the strong days”. There is also a strong argument which is important to be considered in the debate, and it is the point around the individual newspaper and intimate connection with the reader. This is something that the latest technology is not able to establish, even with kindle, and the new tools to read books. In some very interesting ways, reading media is associated and becomes part of person’s identity. It is an individual relationship with an object which in turn becomes social. Can this type of relationship be created outside of the printing paper with an object? We have seen similar relationships with phone mobiles which are also objects. The threat to newspapers will be once a similar relationship is established with an object which people feel is a good substitute to the newspaper. One additional challenge we need to explore is the dynamics that we are seeing in media which people like Robert Thomson (director of The Wall Street Journal) call Web sites “parasites”. For example, major newspapers make huge investment to come up with a final product which is a story written by a correspondent in the other side of the world just to see it appears instantly and for free in one of the countless Internet portals. Another challenge for journalistic content on the Internet is telephone companies that sell access to the network. Meanwhile, those who have invested money into the final product end up losing it or in other words not maximizing their investment.
All these trends have had a catastrophic impact to many major newspapers. The Seattle Post Intelligencer, with 146 years of life, turned off their recently printing machines, reducing its drafting of 167 just to 20 editors limiting just to generate, a digital newspaper. The Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, due to decline in subscribers, is another example of major newspapers which had to close business or change to a digital format. The problem, and what brings us back to the big question of how to keep making profit with journalism, is that so far it has shown that digital advertising is not approaching nearly to the profitability of advertising in paper. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, to transition from newspapers print format to just an online business model means to lose 90% of income. The major issue is to define and establish a business model since there is really none. The challenge is to change the production model of the newspaper, making it to continue to keep the high margins of profitability achieved since its creation. How we can keep making money? How to keep journalism alive? This is a global revolution that we are living, and perhaps answers to these questions could be found in the so-called countries “in development”, where the absence of old structures are forced to start from scratch, to create new companies adapted to today’s technological reality, not the ones of the industrial revolution. An option that has been proposed with enthusiasm in the pages of The New York Times and Time magazine is based on the idea of “saving” journalism in the same way that has “saved” to a certain extent, to the music industry: using a method similar to micropayments of I-tunes, music purchased on the Internet, to the purchase of items. There are groups who see this very challenging and not to equal comparison because in reality a “downloaded” song is forever, while a news expires on a day. Anyway, it is certain that the method of the micropayment would a good option to test. The key would be to discover, come up with a flexible procedure which would be paid, for example, three cents to read a particular article, and perhaps 50 to have unrestricted access to the web page of a newspaper for 24 hours. Another idea to keep afloat the newspapers on-line, is the payment for subscription on the web. The Wall Street Journal has done, with some success. However, it is important to make the observation that it is an exceptional case because it offers a very specialized financial service and more than half of the payments are made by companies and not regular readers. General news of interest to readers not business – sports results, air accidents, declarations of politicians – can be obtained free through countless sources, far beyond the traditional newspapers. In addition we need to keep in mind that even if there could be a group of people willing to pay to read exclusive news, the reality is that the income generated does not compensate for the inevitable losses of advertising. If journalism is in crisis today, as it is the world economy, it is largely by the tendency of people to believe that the circumstances of today are going to always play. What would happen if a new invention comes up that improves Internet? Or, although Internet remains as a means of communication, what happens if people change their habits? Everyone seems to assume that, given that 20 year-olds do not read on paper, have chosen a digital display as their preferred method of communicating with people and find out what’s happening in the world. But, what happens if children today decide to change the current digital trend and start looking for a visual and tactile contact with not virtual people, but physical option. The great comfort of the journalist, or which aspires to be, is that what he does not become an “old” fashion. It has existed and has been in continuous demand long before the emergence of the Internet; long before the first printing press; even before, even though the invention of the wheel.
I really believe there will always be a market for those who have something to tell or inform. People will continue with a need to tell and hear stories, and while this is so, the newspapers have a hope. If a viable business model for journalism is not defined it is possible that the number of newspapers keeps trimming and that fewer people earn bread doing journalism. But, in the worst case, the good guys survive. Newspapers, in the format that is, responding more effectively to educate and amuse will also prevail. The New York Times is a good example on how to leverage the benefits from the digital era, based on its popularity not only in traditional format but also online. And that’s because it has in its ranks to large counters of stories, journalists who are effective in their work. In the end, what lasts, as the great novels, is the quality.
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