Newspapers are my sacred texts. I have always held a special fascination for news in print; watching my parents crack open the New York Times every morning, occasionally clipping out favorite articles to share with friends and family. Just as many do with the Bible, I live my life according to newspapers. So it is not a surprise that I have become preoccupied with how technology threatens the standard of journalism, and ultimately my life.
Generally, progress has a positive connotation to it. It gives of the aura of something becoming stronger, wiser and more powerful with time. When you think of this generation, you think of smart phones, tablets, and other technological progress. And in many cases, twenty-first century technology has progressed society in beneficial ways. For example, medical and environmental findings have increased the quality of life for millions of people. But it is also important to ask ourselves how has the mass access to a plethora of information at any given time affected our society? There are dozens of ways to explore this question, but the way that I have chosen is via the newsprint industry, which has been grappling with how to restructure itself to meet various modern challenges. Our days begin to the unplugging of charging devices, the switching on of iPhones and the blur of televisions, rather than the unfolding of the daily newspaper.
According to The Economist, within less than fifteen years, the members of the industry dropped by 18 percent. But what can actively and efficiently be done to combat the downward spiral that is a career in print news? That is the question that thousands of newspapers have been working to answer. Being a successful paper is an already competitive quest fueled further by the economic crisis. Though the industry began to struggle quite some time ago, when people began speculating about the enormous impact that technology would have on society, the market has worsened with the economic downturn.
Though some have a positive outlook on the print industry, some have already RSVP’d its funeral service. One of the most grim on the subject is a website by the name of “Newspaper Death Watch,” created by author Paul Gillin, which tells the tales of various newspapers and other publications across the country that are kicking the bucket. Among the most recent additions to the “Rest in Peace” list is Newsweek Magazine, published in 1933, which will no longer produce a print product. Gillin, a journalist specializing in technological forms, has written various books on the shift towards technology. “No one is particularly surprised at this development,” the site states, as it describes the dwindling success of the magazine before the announcement of an all-digital 2013 (Gillin). Though this website may not exactly seem like one that would have any scrap of optimism towards the industry, it predicts a “rebirth of journalism” (Gillin). This new era includes further involvement of the reader in published content and more efficient staffs (made up of as few as 19 people!). However you want to look at it, newspapers are finding themselves at a crossroads. And it has become the responsibility of editors and publishing executives to approach the challenges that come with being a newspaper in the year 2012.
Newspapers today are not fighting just one war. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media 2012, advertisement revenue has been quickly declining in the combination of print and online sources (Pew Research Center). Interestingly enough, online advertisement revenue is only a sliver of the revenue print sources make. The fact that online advertisement is less profitable suggests, essentially, that there are three battles the industry must fight: the sliding advertisement revenues, the declining economy, and a society that is becoming increasingly infatuated with technology.
Newspapers reached their peak of advertisement revenue at $49 billion dollars in 2006. The combined revenue of print and online advertisements has been in decline since, and today are less than half of the 2006 figure (Pew Research Center). This drop may be due to various things. For one, the invention of Craigslist, an online source where members can advertise various items for sale free of charge, has taken away from one of newspapers’ largest sources of income: classified ads (Boardman). If a drop of more than fifty percent of revenue can happen within five years, what does the future have in store? Well, it has created a ‘survival of the innovative’ environment amongst publications.
The second war the industry is currently battling pertains to the economy. The economic downturn has played a negative role in practically every single industry in America, not to mention the world, and the print industry is no exception. The financial crisis has ‘upped the ante’ on an industry that is already facing challenges. Economic hardships force companies to downsize staff in the hopes of saving money, whilst still trying to produce an exceptional product, which can be more difficult with less people. Financial cuts are devastating to every industry because it forces companies to do more with less.
The third war is the battle between technology and print. Though a newspaper shifting towards a purely electronic product would steer it away from costly manufacturing, newspapers make less money off of online editions (Pew Research Center). But online sources are the future of publications, they say. Does this mean that the future of the industry is going to be much less profitable; simply by the direction things are headed? Possibly. There is, however, a theory that the reason why the advertisement growth is low and not growing for the online sources is because of a lack of investor confidence in the future of print. Would a complete overhaul to online sources help give investors confidence in the future of publications’ success?
Recent events suggest that an extreme change will not necessarily solve everything. As explained by an article from The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, News Corp., a large media conglomerate will stop publishing The Daily, a publication made exclusively for tablets, which started in 2010, on December 15. Various publications and scholars are currently debating and discussing the downfall of this theoretically perfect publication. According to The Atlantic, the main disadvantage The Daily had not considered was social media integration. Interestingly enough, others do not believe that anything should be different when one shifts towards journalism in a new media. “My needs don’t change just because the device in my hands does,” Jeff Jarvis of The Guardian wrote in response (Dyer, 2012). However, The Daily’s goal was to replicate a very traditional print paper by only publishing stories once a day (Dyer, 2012). The industry is not turning a blind eye to the tablet failure, but attempting to learn form it through the study of its advantages and disadvantages. According to Jarvis, the greatest challenge The Daily faced was making the product special. “News is a commodity available for free in many other places,” he wrote in The Guardian (Jarvis, 2012). Because content is so readily available, if a publication is expecting to charge subscribers to view the content, there better be something that sets it apart from the rest. So not only does a successful paper need to incorporate technology, but also fear becoming obsolete.
People are starting to go so far as to make a prognosis for the newsprint industry, estimating how many years it has before it “will perish” (University of Texas). “Ultimately, someday, the print product will be gone,” says Ken Goldstein, a professional news consultant in Canada. The new era of news, he predicts, will be “news delivered by a number of online services” (University of Texas).
Though all of this may seem very grim and pessimistic, there is some hope. In fact, there are some regions, Latin America for one, were the print industry is “robust and growing” (University of Texas). Reading this really made me wonder how there could be such a large divide in the industry between success and stress. How could it be helplessly spiraling towards obscurity in one country, and then in a region located just hundreds of miles away be on an upward trajectory? The secret is in the philosophy of the publication. The perfect mix of print and online resources must be implemented. A pragmatic amount of technological involvement must be very precisely planned and executed. Though some papers are not interested in a gradual approach to changes and are considering more dramatic shifts in terms of incorporating technology.
The rumor on the streets of Portland is that the Oregonian will be switching to a limited print schedule, as other publications owned by Newhouse Publications have done recently. This is a very alarming prospect not only for the people who actively read the newspaper, but also to those who are employed by the publication. This may all come as a surprise since the Oregonian is quite successfully ranked the twenty-sixth most-read newspaper in the nation for circulating 247,800 copies daily (Mondotimes). Within the entire industry, it has been estimated that over 1,850 people lost their jobs in 2012 (Newspaper Lay Offs), making journalism even less inviting to prospective writers.
The mornings are generally slow for journalists. When I first arrive at the office of The Seattle Times, only a fraction of the staff is present. My preconceived notions of newsrooms and their zestful environment were challenged, as I walked through the peaceful rows of cubicles. More employees are trickling in for their workday as I wait in anticipation for Suki Dardarian, managing editor of The Seattle Times, for my interview. Shortly after entering what is the ‘hub’ of the staff space that is Dardarian’s office, a fish-bowl like room in the center of curved rows of desks and tables, we began talking about the industry. I felt ebullient when I realized that the enthusiastic energy I had longed to see in the newsroom is the essence of Dardarian.
“This is a business challenge,” says Dardarian. This paper in particular, has been thriving during these dark days of print, winning two Pulitzer prizes within the past three years, and being named one of the best news source websites among CNN, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. But that doesn’t mean they’ve got it made. “We can’t count on anything,” Dardarian explains.
Earlier that day I had sat down with Seattle Times Editor in Chief David Boardman in a Seattle Starbucks a few blocks walk from the office, where Mr. Boardman is greeted by name. Boardman is jovial, energetic, and articulate, and passionate towards the paper. His friendly and relaxed manner made me feel at ease as I picked a table and set up.
There are various theories that might explain the success that The Seattle Times has maintained throughout its 116 years of existence, but I believe it is the community vibe it has cultivated, both within its newsroom, and in the streets of Seattle. This is a family paper owned by the Seattle Times Company (Seattle Times Company).
“We make money to publish a newspaper, not the other way around,” Boardman says with conviction. The atmosphere at The Seattle Times is abstruse. The business model has changed dramatically; the people remain trusting, gutsy, and familial. This seemed surprising to me since the office which I visited, now employs roughly half of the four hundred members The Seattle Times supported at its largest point. These layoffs may give off an impression that the industry is moving backwards. But in fact Dardarian says the industry is “lurching forward.” The Seattle Times can thank its new structural direction, aimed at catering to the extremely technologically savvy greater Seattle area, for that. The paper has met their challenges by increasing the cost of the print product as well. In the past the prices of newspapers have been wildly low to increase circulation, which did not cover the cost of manufacturing. The paper has also begun dramatically revising the print product into a smaller, more tightly edited package, keeping audience interest in mind even more when selecting stories. What became increasingly emphasized to me throughout the interview and my site visit was how conscious and self-aware the company is of its successes, challenges, and plans. The industry’s challenges have “forced us to make hard choices in what we do and how we do it,” Boardman says.
Much is in debate in regards to the papers more dramatic future plans. In the future, some feel strongly that only a Sunday paper should be printed, as this is the edition that has received a host of attention. The Sunday paper is something different, something special, more special, that is, than the experience of unfolding a paper any other day of the week. The Sunday paper, first off, reaches far more people than any other day. It appeals to a larger demographic, and it has an emphasis on culture and goings-on in the community. This change might seem somewhat predictable due to other papers’ decrease in print product. The Seattle Times, of course, is contemplating new ways to make the news experience revolutionary, particularly in the making of specific news experiences for individual devices. No longer will there be one way to absorb news, but one for each screen. The iPad, for example, and its more relaxed appeal, will display news in a very interactive way, with lots of pictures and things to click through. The Seattle Times is also fairly certain it will begin charging online readers in a format somewhat similar to The New York Times, where one may view twenty articles a month for free before purchasing more. A restructuring of advertisements as well will bolster the income of The Seattle Times, as it lost the majority of its revenue from classified ads, which in the past made up roughly fifty percent of its advertisers. The increased profit from the consumer due to the higher prices will help replace losses. The soon-to-come digital target advertisement, which Boardman says we are “not far from,” will also increase revenue, as advertisements will be tailored for specific people on the Internet. The purchasing of digital articles will also replace the revenue lost from print advertisement.
But how will change tending towards online journalism change the way that we as consumers interpret news? “I don’t know,” Dardarian answers.
It is both despairing and frightening to not know where the industry is going. But by studying trends in both the United States and around the world, we can find ways to make predictions. What the global industry has certainly experienced is a shift towards “tabloid” style news. When I first heard this, I immediately thought of People Magazine and other cheap papers I see on sale practically everywhere, with their flashy headlines and gossip columns. But what I had not realized is that tabloids in other countries are much more respectable. Yes, they do include profiles of wealthy citizens and stars, but they have not lost their political coverage. But comparing tabloids to publications like The Seattle Times is similar to comparing apples and oranges, as they both uphold different standards of journalism. Some go so far as to say that tabloidization is a risk to the “traditional standard of journalism” (Norris, 2000). The world of tabloid news is very conflicted, as presenting politics in a more casual environment does benefit many people, as it makes the news “more understandable and accessible” (Norris, 2000). Simultaneously, however, this form of journalism focuses on scandal, which some say “may produce greater cynicism among readers” (Norris, 2000).
The field of journalism is also being infiltrated by a new powerful source: television. If the change that many people believe is happening: a gradual attraction towards television over print news, the changes to our societies would be monumental. As Norris wrote in her book A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Post-Industrial Societies:
If TV has taken over from the press as our main source of news this may limit our capacity to learn about public affairs; newspapers are believed to be far more effective than television at conveying detailed information necessary to understand complex and detailed political issues.
In the Seattle area, the biggest competitor The Seattle Times faces is King TV, a local television station that is also popular due to its connection to the community. The Seattle Times has more to offer in terms of international and national news, as well as more stories and resources for more information, not to mention the fact that the paper is much older than any news show, which are all things that make it regarded as the more credible source. However, as the paper considers imposing an online fee for reading articles, and increases the price of the print product, only time will tell if people see the difference in quality between the two sources significant enough for the extra cost.
So maybe the industry is not going to hell in a hand basket. I choose to look at it like a car hesitating at a fork in the road and still contemplating its next move. I am a worrier: I worry for the industry and for the society in which I live, because I believe that newspapers and journalism are extremely eminent forces in educating the public. Not only do I use newspapers for supportive evidence while in class; in my personal time I use them as resources to stay informed about the world around me.
There is something particularly special to me about reading news in print form. I gravitate to newspapers in print. Print conjures an idea of prestige, tradition, and credibility to me much more than any online source does. Though there might not be any scientific reason behind my preference of print, I prefer news at my fingertips, not news a click away. However, I would much rather have online news sources than lose credible news altogether.
Obviously there are plenty of issues ailing my, and your, local and global communities. I have a moral obligation to do my part in addressing them, which would be impossible if I had not educated myself about the problems themselves. News guides me like a religion. Fortunately, this experience has changed me into an optimist. I am an optimist because I see the work that The Seattle Times is doing as something to calm my nerves, and save my faith.
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