The Future of Journalism

Good news: Peter Preston, media commentator in The Observer, notes “newspaper shares – and salaries – recover in the US” this despite continuing slides in circulation and advertising revenues in the UK and elsewhere in Europe: the market can’t be wrong? As Preston continues “The analysts of Wall Street may never expect to see newspaper sales hit the heights of 2002 again; but they advise investors to “buy” as well as “sell” once more. Productivity can and does mean fatter pay packets. There’s a drawing of a breath, a pause, a resolve to develop what’s there, as well as what might be.” newspaper shares – and salaries – recover in the US. And in the UK there are still over 1,000 local and regional newspapers being published, some in print only but many in hybrid fashion with a digital version as well.

More good news: more publishers are showing determination to fight rather than just to try to manage these seismic shifts of falling readership and precipitous declines in classified revenues: more publications eg City A.M. – a free paper, going to print at 1.15 a.m. plus a website including comments and campaigning, continues to trade profitably and thrive in London despite the weak financial sector. The London Evening Standard, bought by a Russian oligarch for a nominal £1 (plus debts) a few years ago, also claims to be making money in 2012, despite having become a free newspaper. Both rely 90% on advertising and sponsorship revenues plus 10% from events and online sales.

Vive la – a French online investigative and opinion daily started in 2008, relies almost exclusively on subscribers, carrying practically no advertising, and has been profitable since 2011. It continues to break big stories, not achieved by the traditional media, including the Betancourt affair under Sarkozy and more recently a scandal involving President Hollande’s budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, allegedly holder of an undeclared Swiss bank account.

More newspapers are introducing paywalls for access to their online content. Higher and more reliable download speeds mean that more people are prepared to pay for content online than was the case 3 or 4 years ago, when paywalls only seemed sustainable by semi-specialist media such as the FT and WSJ. In spite of the explosion of the use of social media to track latest news, there is still a strong demand for online quality journalism.

Digital or online content seems able to compete so long as it is much more open to interactive participation: readers are no longer content with the randomness of getting a Letter to the Editor published. One of BlogActiv’s most prolific bloggers observed a few years ago now “I can write to the Financial Times ten or twenty times a year, but only one or two of these letters will ever get published; when I blog they are all published and most are read”.

But who owns the links we click and embed online? Should the original creator of that content be paid when that material is shared online, even with just links? In Ireland, newspapers are wrestling with this issue as most attempt to charge third parties for linking and displaying the paper’s content for commercial purposes.

Now Ireland’s newspapers want to cash in on the practice. Are they wrong? They certainly seem to be behind the curve set six years ago when Belgian French language newspapers started their battle with Google in an attempt to fight “news aggregation”, settled out of court in Dec 2012. PaidContent notes that French newspaper Le Monde claims that the Belgian papers “forced Google to bend” and that Google pay newspapers “around 5 million euros”.

The justification that a link to copyrighted material basically equates to copyright infringement is one shared by some French and German publishers, still involved in a legal fight with Google as reported in October by the New York Times over the same type of content linking. But that doesn’t mean that the Irish print press will be successful, as enforcing this mandate beyond the Republic of Ireland will be tough.

However, paywalls do appear to be one route to offset the declines of classified revenues. In the U.S. the Poynter Institute claims that the Washington Post will join some 360 other U.S. papers in charging for digital content in 2013. How about Europe? Will the majority of Belgian, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Polish and other European publishers follow the US & UK trend of seeking payment for online content?

In short: quality journalism in 2013 is alive and coping, if not quite thriving. It is moving inexorably online across Europe, but digital content while increasingly necessary, may not be sufficient alone. Readers clearly want to be heard and involved interactively: tweets, polls, photos, infographics, video clips and reader editors are just a few of the innovations that now seem an essential part of the quality online mix.

What do you think will be the ‘future of journalism’ trends to watch in 2013?

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