The news media industry is going for broke

As publishers try to fix a broken business model, it isn’t only journalists who are pining for the “good old days”.

[John Lamb/Getty Images]

Doha, Qatar – For decades, the mighty newspaper industry had been sitting pretty like Humpty Dumpty on a wall, unfazed by radio and television’s challenges. But the dawn of the digital age is setting it up for a big fall. Or so conventional wisdom suggests.

That was also the message of John Oliver, the English comedian and television host, when he remarked in a recent segment of Last Week Tonight: “The truth is publishers are desperate and no one seems to have a perfect plan to keep newspapers float.”

From the evidence at hand, it is hard to dispute his point that the newspaper industry today is in “big trouble”. But to focus only on newsprint-based media, the evidence also suggests, is to not see the wood for the trees.

The print journalist’s days may very well be numbered, but the career prospects seem scarcely any brighter for workers across the media spectrum who cannot imagine reinventing themselves as aid-agency officers, PR executives or full-time novelists.

For the past several years, even small talk within the press pack has tended to be about little else but the grim handwriting on the wall, which goes something like this:

Print is doomed, television is dying a slow death, online has begun to level off despite all the bells and whistles, only “digital” looks promising in this era of smartphones and other mobile devices – but that too mainly as a bright shiny object to wow venture capitalists in search of the Next Big Thing.

For news organisations, what this means is a constant struggle to stand out in a business that the Nieman Lab calls a “media ecosystem dominated by choice, fragmentation and news consumers’ gravitation towards sources that confirm their beliefs and reinforce their biases”.

Meanwhile, for journalists the sense of impending doom has moved steadily closer to reality, with newsroom downsizing and print-edition closures leaving many of them without a regular paycheque before they can even google “LinkedIn”.

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“In India, a few media houses are rolling in money but the rest are struggling,” Geeta Seshu, an independent journalist and consulting editor of the media watch site The Hoot, told Al Jazeera by phone from Mumbai.

“The pauperisation of media professionals in the industry is not something journalists like to talk about.

“A handful of top personnel are drawing huge salaries while the rest are woefully underpaid. Many medium and small media houses can’t even pay their employees on time.”

Existential crisis

To economists, the current predicament of journalists may be just a case of market forces favouring certain occupations that require a high degree of specialisation over others that are more generalist in nature and whose output is hard to monetise.

However, to rights activists, social scientists and public intellectuals, it is deeply worrying that society may be on the brink of losing something a lot more valuable than just a profession with a certain je ne sais quoi as a result of the existential crisis confronting news journalism.

Society may be on the brink of losing a lot more than just an occupation (Matt Cardy/Getty Images]
Society may be on the brink of losing a lot more than just an occupation (Matt Cardy/Getty Images]

From their perspective, the fabulous profits being racked up year after year by Silicon Valley-based new-media behemoths such as Facebook and Google offer no answers to the questions about the viability of critical analysis of the roles of government and business as newspapers and TV channels worldwide struggle with shrinking revenues.

In what no longer seems like a far-fetched scenario, citizens exposed to crime, corruption, incompetence or injustice will have little prospect of redress unless they approach the judiciary, non-governmental organisations, local politicians or, heaven forbid, extra-legal authorities, where once just a report in the local newspaper or TV channel would have sufficed.

At the national and international levels too, there is a serious risk that news media will increasingly offer a lopsided view of events, with wall-to-wall coverage of personalities and controversies which attracts big audiences and generous advertising crowding out stories championing the underdog that require research, time, resources and news-gathering budgets.

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“What kinds of news are being potentially put at risk in the new ecosystem? Long-form investigative news [and] more complex stories that are not easily and instantly digestible by users and therefore don’t generate these numbers,” Justin Schlosberg, a lecturer in journalism and media at the University of London, told Al Jazeera’s Listening Post for a recent episode on the fight between Facebook Inc and ad blockers.

“The kinds of news that hold local centres of powers to account are in many ways the vanguards of the fourth estate, and we need to be really worried about the pressures this new news economics is placing on them.”

‘Dangerous occupation’

Analysts say that in advanced democracies with perceived low levels of corruption, rights violations and abuse of political and administrative power, the net effect of a steady decline in the audience numbers, profits and influence of the so-called legacy media on society is likely to be harmful, but to what extent precisely is still an open question.

On the other hand, in countries where news headlines have traditionally been the only leverage available for ordinary people to use against autocratic or apathetic governments and errant private companies, a future without deep-pocketed, independent media houses and investigative non-profits is bound to be a future fraught with risks to rule of law and danger for democratic and liberal values, say the analysts.

In the long run, they say, if enough bright graduates are not attracted to the industry owing to its crippled finances and occupational hazards, the press will gradually fail to meet society’s expectations of its role as a vital public service, the impressive pace and breadth of digital-media innovation notwithstanding.

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“Journalism has never been a high-paying profession, but these days the attraction it holds for young people is even less, not only because it is not remunerative but also because it is seen as a dangerous occupation,” Luis Teodoro, a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview from Manila.

“Newspapers and their online editions, TV channels and radio stations continue to have a large audience base in the Philippines, but many of them are owned by big conglomerates or politicians whose intent is not so much to encourage great journalism as to wield influence.”

To be sure, the realisation that it is just not feasible any more to operate a for-profit business whose sole product is high-quality journalism in an age of easy availability of free online content is hardly the most painful blow inflicted in recent memory by technological advancements’ double-edged sword.

And as traumatic as the experience may be for a journalist being laid off, clearly there are fates far worse than unemployment in a world all too familiar with images of war, terrorism and mass displacement.

Global economic malaise

In any event, the global economy itself has not been producing encouraging results for quite some time now, according a recent New York Times analysis, which could mean that journalism is merely one of many occupations under stress.

A paper published 16 years ago by Robert J Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University, had counterintuitively predicted that the internet would not have the same transformative impact on how much economic output would flow from an hour of human labour as innovations such as air transport, indoor plumbing and electricity did in the last century.

Economists have since come round to the view that the global body economic is afflicted by a very deep malaise, with all the standard prescriptions proving ineffective in curing it.

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Since 2000, when Gordon published his paper, despite the plethora of products and services spawned by the internet, incomes have been rising very slowly for those who are not top earners, and a very small section of the global population is benefiting from the little growth that is occurring.

That there could be something fundamentally wrong with the global economy is of course small consolation to a fresh journalism graduate struggling to land a stable job, to say nothing about a laid-off TV producer driven to despair by a lack of prospective employers.

Even those who think that the digital media highway will somehow get them to their destination had better beware of road surprises.

A broken business model is seen as the bane of legacy media [Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images]
A broken business model is seen as the bane of legacy media [Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images]

A new report by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy says that readers are spending less time reading news content on mobile devices, which further muddies the issue for media organisations who are counting on technological innovation to set right a seemingly broken business model.

And the problem of a broken model – summarised by John Oliver thus: “print ads are less popular with advertisers than they used to be, and online ads produce much less revenue” – continues to be in a sense the bane of legacy media as a whole, as opposed to the phenomenal growth story of the new-media giants.

None of this means for certain that the digital age spells doom for print journalism. But if all the king’s horses and all the king’s men eventually fail to put Humpty together again, chances are the entire news-media trade will have a big fall.

And as publishers desperately try to figure out ways to avoid that fate, there remains this nagging feeling not just among fourth-estate curmudgeons but also the wider civil society: Well, weren’t the good old days great?

There is a risk the press could cease to be a vital public service [Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters]
There is a risk the press could cease to be a vital public service [Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera