Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Content Shift

Commentary – Executive magazine

A RECENT TRIP to London and Rome brought home how precarious the future of newspapers is in Europe, particularly in the capitals where commuters are inundated with free copies of tabloid newspapers.
Glancing around at fellow passengers on the London Underground, few were reading ‘normal’ newspapers while every other person was flicking through freebie Metro - which is to be found in most European capitals – or sister-paper London Lite.
Light these newspapers (if you can call them that) certainly are, all celebrity news orientated with a splash here and there of local news; it was as if Britain were in no way involved on the international stage, or in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The rise of these dailies have hit the national newspapers doubly hard, struggling as they are for advertising in the midst of an economic slowdown while trying to retain a readership in an era of immediate news. This has had a direct impact on the news the papers are producing, with newspapers jumping on the bandwagon of reduced hard news and foreign coverage in favor of the sensational and glamorous. All these factors thrown together have resulted in gloomy prospects for the industry.
Total sales of national newspapers in the UK are down 2% year on year, with broadsheets falling 3.4%, while the tabloid press has only dropped 1.2%. In the USA it is a similar story, with all newspapers reporting a drop in sales, bar a few exceptions, with total newspaper advertising, combining print and online revenues, falling 9.4% last year.
Less disheartening is the fact that there are still people around who want serious news, with The Financial Times’ circulation growing 2.1% while the Wall Street Journal’s circulation of 2.1 million copies has risen 0.4% over the past year.
Of concern however is that the increased commercialization and sensationalism of newspapers is leading to much larger papers, page wise, to give people supposed value for money – with some Sunday editions weighing in at nearly 2 kilos – but written by a near skeleton staff and almost devoid of original content. This has led to what Nick Davies, author of “Flat Earth News,” has called ‘churnalism’.
In a study Davies carried out with Cardiff University on the sources for articles in British newspapers over a two-week period, they found that 60% of stories in the more serious newspapers were wholly or mainly wire copy (i.e. Reuters, Associated Press or the UK’s Press Association) or from PR firms, 20% had clear elements of wire copy or PR, and 8% were from uncertain sources. That left only 12% of articles that were actually researched by journalists in person or over the phone - real journalism in other words.
But with Britain now having more PR people than journalists (47,800 vs. 45,000), it is perhaps no real surprise that PR is having an impact on a sector that is desperate for content while at the same time slashing their budgets for staff and expenses. Of further concern in our globalized world, and naturally for the Middle East, is that foreign coverage is on the decline. In 1970, for instance, CBS had three full-time correspondents in Rome alone, but by 2006, the entire US media, print and broadcast sector had only 141 foreign correspondents to cover the whole world.
While this is all bad news, particularly for newspaper journalists, it has meant that other media and entertainment outlets are picking up the slack.
For instance, a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) survey of 15 global media markets, from online, TV, and newspaper advertising to theme park and cinema ticket sales, estimated that these markets were worth $1.6 trillion, and will be worth $2.2 trillion by 2012.
The ad battle between online publications and newspapers is where things will get the bloodiest though, with PWC predicting that by 2012, newspaper print ads will be worth $123 billion, only $3 billion more than online advertising, while newspaper ads and circulation is expected to rise from $186 billion last year to $208 billion. Notably, where newspaper circulation is dropping, in the US, UK and Europe, there is to be a rise in the emerging markets of China and India. So while new media will make inroads everywhere, old media may see an upturn in newer markets.
The question that plagues journalists and people that like to be kept well informed though is what kind of content these new publications will have as the battle between new and old media takes on epic proportions – heavy on quantity but not much quality appears to be the obvious conclusion.
Ultimately, what is likely to happen is that there will be an upswing in demand for specialized and niche publications catering to people’s specific business and personal interests, while general news becomes more marginalized, slotted in-between ‘churnalism’, saucy sex scandals and photo shoots of what celebs were wearing at some cocktail bash.

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