Reflections on the future of print journalism

“Twenty, thirty, at the outside 40 years from now, we will look back on the print media the way we look back on travel by horse and carriage, or by wind-powered ship.”

So said former editor-at-Large of Time Inc, Daniel Okrent, while delivering a lecture at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

As far as I’m concerned, that will be a very, very sad day, because I’m part of an ever-diminishing group of Kiwis who like to start the morning with a cup of coffee and (shock, horror, gasp!) the print version of the New Zealand Herald.

I pay my modest annual subscription for the convenience of being able to do that from Monday to Saturday, 52 weeks a year. I like the tactile feeling of turning the page, the ability to scan back and forward between sections, to get a sense of how the news is prioritised, and because, well – it just feels better that way.

I also like watching my children skim through the paper and consume their news via print, given the fact that’s probably the only time in the day they’ll digest anything resembling current affairs.

But print media, as we all know, is in big trouble, and the decline (or, as Okrent argued, imminent death) of newspapers has been both widely debated and reported.

The number of New Zealand newspaper readers declined from nearly 1.5 million in 2009 to fewer than 900,000 in 2014, with the New Zealand Herald tracking steadily downwards to its current figure 127,000 papers sold every day (although the publication has seen an increase in readership over the last three Nielsen surveys). At its peak, in 1992, it sold more than 250,000 copies daily.

Here in Aotearoa, just like every other part of the world, the industry has seen plummeting advertising sales, the loss of classified advertising and damaging drops in circulation. So, what implication does that have for business news, or the lack thereof?

Back of an envelope analysis of a recent Friday Business edition of the New Zealand Herald, revealed the following insights. Out of 23 pages, not including the front page:

  • 28 percent of content was advertisements
  • 18 percent was produced by NZ Herald journalists
  • 8 percent was produced by contractors
  • 4 percent was sponsored content (i.e. paid)
  • 13 percent was supplied/provided (i.e. not paid advertorial)
  • And a further 29 percent was from press agencies

That’s attributable to a number of factors. Firstly, less advertising is being sold (which means less revenue to pay staff costs) and secondly, there are fewer journalists to find and then report on news that’s relevant, and of interest to readers. Local reporting staff cannot be expected to fill it all.

And so, the dramatic dive in print sales continues with pace, the migration of lucrative classified advertising to online channels is almost complete, overall advertising content is at an all-time low, and profits have continued to dwindle.

Maybe the world’s biggest social media giants will help out, despite their dominance of advertising spend, and the recent Commerce Commission decision to derail the Fairfax/NZME media merger?

Well, let’s refer to a piece published recently in the Listener, “If the media are to survive, they must outwit Facebook and Google,” where commentator Peter Griffin addressed the issue of the future viability of our media industry.

He asked Facebook if it plans to employ journalists and produce news itself if traditional news publishers fail because of the digital onslaught. Here’s their vanilla response: “We’re making a concerted effort and investment to be sure we’re the kind of player and the kind of partner to journalism that we should be,” a nameless spokesperson was quoted as saying. “We want to support meaningful connections and informed communities on Facebook.”

What a bunch of unmitigated toss.

Many years ago, I trained as a journalist. At its best, I think it’s a noble profession, that it plays a vital part in shaping people’s impartial views on the issues that matter, and that in an age of ‘alternative facts’ we need it now, more than ever.

In an article titled ‘The Print Media Are Doomed‘, Business Week outlined several reasons why print won’t last the distance: “It’s not that print is bad. It’s that digital is better. It has too many advantages (and there’ll only be more): Ubiquity, speed, permanence, searchability, the ability to update, the ability to remix, targeting, interaction, marketing via links, data feedback. Digital transcends the limitations of print”.

Those are strong reasons, for sure, but frankly, I still prefer – in the first instance, anyway – print over online, any day. Not only can you hold a print edition in your hand when you first get it, the print newspaper is arguably more impactful, whereas articles can be hidden away on an online website in a matter of a few days. And of course, as I outlined earlier, mornings just feel better, for me anyway, with a print version of the NZ Herald.

Despite the weight of evidence to the contrary, I hope print lasts the distance and can stick around to complement the digital world we all live in.

Oh, and by the way, Okrent has twenty years before his prediction rings true.

  • Kelly Bennett is the founder and managing director of corporate communications consultancy One Plus One.

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