For some time now, we in India have heard about newspapers in the West being in trouble.
The news has come to us in bits and pieces: the closing down of newspapers in one town after another across the US (Ann Arbor News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Tuscon Citizen, etc.); a UK media company firing hundreds of journalists from its prestigious business daily (Financial Times); a tycoon taking over a struggling US newspaper to keep it afloat (The Wall Street Journal); and just two weeks ago, a 66-year-old highbrow French daily running out of cash (Le Monde).
Now a report based on a detailed study of the phenomenon as it has unfolded over three years gives us the big picture.
The Indian context might be different because newspaper circulation here is growing overall, and is likely to continue doing so as literacy levels rise. But India is developing rapidly, and the report ought to interest anyone here who cares about the future of the country’s press.
From 2007 to 2009, circulation and readership have declined in 20 of the 30 countries in the study, released in June by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a grouping of mostly high-income nations. (See www.oecd.org.)
The decline in circulation was steepest in the US, at 30 per cent, followed by the U.K. at 25 per cent, it found. The drop was also significant in Greece, at 20 per cent; in Italy, at 18 per cent; and in Canada, at 17 per cent.
In half the countries studied, circulation had dropped to below 2004 levels — 34 per cent below that mark in the U.S. and 22 per cent below it in the UK, showing that these two countries have been the worst hit.
A succinct explanation for why this has happened appears in another recent article about the future of news: “Digital predators have decimated the print-advertising model, and…no matter how brilliant our Web sites, the shiny digital-advertising dime doesn’t replace that old print dollar,” writes Chrystia Freeland, global editor-at-large at Thomson Reuters, in Columbia Journalism Review’s July/August issue.
To make up for the erosion of advertising revenue on the Internet, some media organisations are charging for online content, The Times, London, being one recent example.
But the OECD study found that although half the population in some of the countries read newspapers online, “their willingness to pay for online news [remained] low.”
One cannot say whether this will change over time, but assuming it does not, is there a way to stem the decline of newspapers?
A lot of the discussion about solutions has been restricted to market-based business models. But the search for non-market solutions is gradually gathering momentum in some countries, the report says.
“Given the central role of news for democratic societies, the evolutions of news creation and distribution are a matter of public interest,” it says. “The question is whether and how the production of high-quality and pluralistic news content can be left to market forces alone.”
The concept of state/public (as opposed to government) funding of news is hardly new. In the U.K., every citizen with a television pays a licence fee, which has for decades funded the British Broadcasting Corporation.
It is not too early for us in India to start questioning fundamental assumptions about newspapers’ revenue streams, and explore funding options that are radically different from what we have now.