Newspapers; An Endangered Species

For much of the last century news in the UK was dominated by a handful of outlets. For your parents, and certainly your grandparents, there wasn’t really an alternative. You had BBC radio and television, and that was it. Brits were drip-fed news; a fixed amount at fixed times of day.

This was socially significant. For a start everybody got, broadly speaking, the same information at the same time. And that information, although not controlled, was certainly bottlenecked; if you missed the evening news you had to wait till the following day to read about it in the newspapers.

Newspapers themselves weren’t much better. There were less than ten daily national papers. They would offer insight and analysis, but from a comparatively narrow range of sources. As with television, most people read about the same stories, at the same time. The only real difference was the editorial slant put on a story.

Fast forward to today and the picture is very different. It is not an overstatement to say that the internet has revolutionised the news industry. Citizens can access any news story, at any time, from pretty much anywhere. By the time the evening news rolls around, you already know what the stories are going to be because you’ve already read about them on your PC, laptop, tablet or phone. By the time the story reaches the newspaper, it’s practically ancient.

We don’t even need to use the traditional media outlets anymore; we can go straight to source. The Associated Press and Reuters can be accessed directly, particularly for world news. In addition, we get can get news instantly via word of mouth on Twitter and Facebook, even before the journalists get there.

Add to this the thousands of blogs and online newspapers, all offering their own opinion and analysis, and you begin to get an idea of how much things have changed, and how the old model of news dissemination is looking increasingly anachronistic.

But is this a good thing? The democratisation of news reporting has opened the sector up to a vast new audience. Citizens have never had access to so much information so quickly and with so little control by the authorities. A well informed electorate is vital to a healthy democracy, and a citizen that can create and well as consume news is more engaged and active.

However the flip side of this is that we can also cherry pick our news. For the last 150 years we all, broadly speaking, got given the same news at the same time. Today we can filter out news we don’t want. But that also means we can filter out opinions we don’t want.

And herein lays the danger of echo chambers. If you were so inclined, you could spend the rest of your days only hearing news from sources with your in-built bias and prejudices. It’s very tempting after all, to have every news source you read agree with you. But by only ever hearing one opinion, you create and fortify your own reality. Everybody outside your ideological bubble becomes and enemy and only those who share your views can be trusted. Politics stops being the art of the possible and become a contest as to who can compromise least.

The topic is even more interesting because rather than entering a brave new world, we are in fact reverting to the model we had in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. Before the age of mass circulation newspapers, news and opinion was printed on short pamphlets and distributed in salons and coffee shops among small groups of like minded friends. Rarely did a story or opinion piece become national. They were to all intents and purposes, parchment echo chambers. The difference was, however, that the same pubs, coffee shops, salons and cafés were frequented by different groups. Lively debates were common, and often violent. The point is that people were exposed to different views and opinions. Today, sat behind a keyboard, you can incubate yourself from such perils.

It is ironic that just as technology killed off the pamphlet and as wireless allowed news to be spread quickly, it is now slowly killing off the mass circulation newspapers that replaced them.

So what next for the big beasts of news?

Newspaper sales will continue to fall, more sharply for the broadsheets than the tabloids. This is partly because tabloids tend to be read by people who don’t work at a desk and so don’t have the same access to the internet, (for example builders, warehouse workers, delivery drivers). Online advertising will continue to grow as newspapers shift more of their content online, with the Daily Mail and Guardian leading the way on this. But even if you add revenue from paywalls, this will come nowhere near to offsetting the losses from falling sales.

Costs will have to be cut, massively. Journalists will be fewer in number, and possibly shared between publications (this already happens but the practice will be formalised). Overseas correspondents will go, being replaced with agreements with local news outlets to share material.

In addition, the very look of newspapers will change. Rather than trying to report every story as it happens, newspapers will concentrate on opinion and analysis and the investigative journalism at which they excel. Some newspapers will probably stop being daily, preferring maybe three editions a week or less. Think more Economists, less Independents.

Running parallel to this will be an increasing role for the citizen journalist. Armed with nothing but an iPad and local knowledge, their stories will be access able to individuals directly, and will also be hosted on free to view websites. What they lack in professionalism and slick production aesthetics, they make up for in speed and intimacy. You’ll also see more websites like The Backbencher, where individuals who’ve often never met, collaborate to bring readers a range of articles based on what’s happening in the news as well as their own specialist subjects.

Things will be a little easier for televised news. BBC News and Sky News will retain their duopoly (ITN and Channel Four accepted). Few people will actually watch RT News or CNN as an alternative, if for no other reason than these tend to be world news orientated. The more significant change will come as televisions cease to be stand alone units, but rather merge with the family computer. Split screen televisions are already on the market, allowing users to watch television and order their shopping on the same screen.

…product placement advertisers must be wetting themselves with excitement.

Technology has changed news irrevocably, but it hasn’t killed it. Human nature dictates that there will always be an appetite for news, and the Free Market, God bless it, will happily oblige.


Related post: David Leigh is wrong to argue for newspaper subsidies.



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