Eve Dmochowska
Eve Dmochowska

Death of newspapers nigh?

Quality newspapers are in trouble. The local daily printed newspapers are in even bigger trouble. I know this because I am a news junkie, and I haven’t bough a daily paper in ages. I even cancelled my subscription, and I am sucker for convenience.

My interaction with newspapers goes something like this: on the morning school drive I will glance at the street-pole headlines. Often, they tell me everything I need to know right there (“Heart op man doing fine“) or they will allude to something covered on radio the previous afternoon (“Petrol stations to close at night“). Sometimes, they will have a grabbing headline, which will cause me to turn on the radio for news, call someone for more info or save it for when I am in front of the computer.

When I do get to the computer, I go to the main news sites and browse through what interests me. During the day I get the breaking news via Twitter or my RSS feed. When I find an interesting story online, I can read it and click through immediately to read other sources of information, and usually I can comment and read what others have to say.

On the rare occasion I do buy a newspaper, I am always left feeling disappointed. The quality of reporting is shocking, I don’t like the story mix, international news is hidden somewhere on double-digit pages and there isn’t much else.

I can get every single piece of relevant information online that is available in a newspaper. For free. And very often with an added layer of convenience or instant gratification. (Admittedly, a website I often use is the Times Online, which is a local paper born in the “new era” and which seems to “get it”. The Mail & Guardian Online is also, of course, superb. )

And that is pretty much the problem. Local printed newspapers have managed to survive only because internet usage is still relatively low, and because people are locked into the convenience of door delivery. But consider this: the people who read the paper are the people who are most likely going to become internet users, if they are not ones already.

Most important, the news is updated online as often as the story requires. Not so, obviously, with printed media. For example, when I watched the Eurocup 2008, I would have had to wait for the late edition of the paper the next day to read about the previous night’s game.

To be clear: just because printed newspapers are dying does not mean that the media company needs to die with them. But it must evolve. It must get online, build a strong presence and grab market share there while it still can.

People will always be hungry for well-reported, relevant news. I hope that never changes. Local newspapers would be smart to divert their printing budget to investigative reporting and good writers, and sell their goods online.

The maths makes sense too. Right now, a half-page ad in the Star costs about R65 000 and is worth nothing the day after it appears. Online, that budget could be used to create a very targeted, efficient and result-driven campaign that would bring measurable and clear results, spread over days. And, once again, just because the target audience does not yet have access to the internet, it does not mean that it never will.

There is another caveat: the internet teaches us that we, as an audience, have an important voice, and when it comes to news we will want to exercise it too. We will soon demand to be able to interact, comment on and rate stories and their writers. The only place that can be done is online.

To make matters worse, it no longer helps to hold on to the “in hand better than on screen” philosophy. The next generation of potential newspaper readers is growing up with cellphones as their main communication centres. Small screens are a feature, not a hindrance.

The international big names (New York Times, Washington Post) have been playing the online game for a long time, and even now they are struggling to get it right. The Washington Post print division just reported its second-ever loss (operating loss of $5,3-million for second quarter), which was attributed to a 22% dive in print advertising, and only a 4% rise in online advertising.

Overall, in the US, print ad sales fell a billion dollars in the last quarter of 2007, from the same period the year before. And online ad sales only rose by $135-million. In fact, print sales are at 1997 levels! (From Techcrunch.)

Right now, we refer to the internet-abled communication as “new media”. But it won’t be new forever. Soon, even in South Africa, the people who consume the news the most will do so via their computers or their cellphones.

So if you print newspapers for a living, and unless you are printing tabloids or target a specific sector of the population that might indeed prefer to hold a newspaper rather than a mouse in their hands, you’d better start adapting. And fast.

Or you’ll be old news.