Print Journalism must survive

Following the rise of the Internet, newspapers around the world have seen revenues rapidly decline as more and more readers get news for free on the web. The rapid decline of traditional daily newspapers has led to increasing concern over the future of print journalism in the era of instant communications.

In a recent editorial entitled “How to Save Your Newspaper” published in Time magazine, the magazine’s former managing editor Walter Isaacson called on Internet surfers to overcome their opposition to paying for news content. Isaacson correctly noted that webizens have gradually managed to overcome their reluctance to pay for music and electronic books. According to Isaacson, relying on Internet advertising alone to keep traditional news organizations in business will not succeed. As he pointed out, news organizations that tradtionally relied on three sources of income — sales, subscriptions and advertising — now mostly rely on advertising to stay afloat.

While readership for news content producers has continued to grow, reliance on only one of these three sources of income has made news organizations more beholden to advertisers. And since much of the Internet advertising revenue has to be shared with search engines and other web hosts, relying on banner ads and pop-ups alone is not sufficient to support the high costs of running traditional print news outlets.

Isaacson has suggested perfecting a new kind of system of paying for content that would allow web surfers to quickly and easily pay small amounts for the content they consume. We agree that a system enabling users to easily hand over pennies for the content they want to see would go a long way toward persuading Internet surfers that paying for news content is worthwhile. But until such a system is up and running, print news organizations, and especially newspapers, will continue struggling just to survive. As Isaacson noted in his editorial, more Americans got their news online for free last year than they did paying for it by purchasing newspapers or magazines.

We also agree that traditional print reporting urgently needs to find a new source of revenue in order to avoid becoming beholden to advertisers, or worse, going out of business. We believe that many of the arguments raging about free news content over the Internet had also been made in the early days of radio and television news reporting.

With the exception of minimal fees that cable TV subscribers pay for basic cable services or satellite radio fees that subscribers in countries like the U.S. pay, the vast majority of people listening to radio news or watching news on television still do not pay a cent for the content they are receiving.

Nonetheless, broadcast journalism has managed to flourish over recent decades, carving out its own niche at the expense of traditional print journalism outlets. However, the current situation still differs from the 20th century emergence of broadcasting. With the advent of the Internet and the “cut-and-paste” culture that surrounds its use, we are seeing more and more of the same content being “printed” and “re-printed” over and over again on countless web sites.

Even though the public has access to more news media outlets today than ever before, the content being carried on these outlets generally originates from just a few sources, mostly wire services and a small handful of influential newspapers. If the public wants to continue to enjoy access to adequate local news and first-hand quality reporting from bureaus around the world, this will simply not be possible in an era where Internet sites merely regurgitate content originating out of just a few resources.

But until web surfers are persuaded that they need to pay for news content, and until better ways are worked out for revenue-generating advertising not to annoy Internet news consumers, the future for news content producers will continue to be bleak. In the end, we would like to see an “easy pay” system established making it easy and painless for readers to pay in small amounts as they surf around for content. But even setting aside the revenue problem, we also worry that Internet news sources make it all too easy for readers to filter out undesirable news.

The traditional role that newspapers have played in setting the news agenda is being rapidly eroded as users frequently only read the kinds of news that they want to read. This is leading toward increased political polarization, as people tend to read the kinds of stories they are interested in or agree with, while all but ignoring events that don’t match their taste buds. Other people are simply becoming isolated, unaware of important events that fail to turn up on their radar screens.

While TV and radio remain important, newspapers have traditionally played the most important role in setting the news agenda, as printed stories tend to contain more content and depth than their broadcast counterparts. If the world is made to go without the wisdom and depth of print reporting, news consumers will be left with a “dumbed down” understanding of the world. A new and practical means simply must be worked out to keep print journalism alive.

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