Monday, 7 September 2020

The State of the News is Terminal

There are people who say that asking whether newspapers will eventually vanish is like asking 65 million years ago whether dinosaurs would become extinct.

The answer is probably not quite as emphatic as a meteorite wiping out a whole world of living creatures, but there is no doubt that newspapers are in terminal trouble.

 This was one of the themes that President Ian Widdop brought up when he introduced the topic of mass communication for a club discussion at the meeting last week.

There is little doubt that 45 minutes was not long enough for what turned out to be a lively and layered debate on a topic that has vexed the media industry for the better part of two decades.

Newspapers, which once played a pre-eminent role in media, are in the firing line, losing readership to electronic media and advertising to social media, with attempts to turn the tide back in their favour with paywalls and a larger Internet presence, being only partial successful.

This is a far cry from circulations counting in the millions, readership in multiples of that and newspaper management meeting with cigarette and liquor company executives once a year to discuss solo advertisements on front pages over drinks in fancy restaurants.

The New York Times building in Manhattan, the world's best known newspaper

Ian quoted Mark Thomson, the outgoing British born CEO of the New York Times (one of the few remaining truly successful publications) as predicting the demise of newspapers in 20 years' time.

Word at Media24, the largest newspaper and magazine publisher in South Africa, is that that timeline is unlikely to be much longer than two years. Koos Bekker, now chairman of Naspers, the holding company, reportedly has referred to newspaper technology as "platgestampte boomstompe", or flattened tree stumps.

Thompson in an exit interview compared the the relationship between newspapers and their print editions to that between the Titanic and an iceberg.

The truth is that a publication once every 24 hours just doesn't cut it against live streaming news (TV) or on the conglomeration of thousands of websites all chasing breaking news and all being able to publish almost instantaneously.

A newspaper like the Sun in the UK, which not so long ago was selling more than 5 million copies a day, dropped to 1.2 million in February this year. No wonder that Rupert Murdoch has decided to stop publishing the circulation figures of his newspapers in the UK. His newspaper The Times of London, which has been going since 1785, has dropped to under 350 000 daily sales from a high of over 700 000. Interestingly, the combined print and online circulation is less that the highest daily sales were.

South Africa's two biggest Sunday newspapers, Rapport and Sunday Times

In South Africa Rapport, for example, once had an average circulation of 500 000 every Sunday. That has waned to under 100 000 and that was before the present lockdown. When I worked there it was battle to keep the circulation above 400 000. That battle has been emphatically lost.

The Sunday Times, which sold more than 500 000 copies a week for decades, fell to about 200 000 before the lockdown caused further carnage. Most South African newspapers didn't report circulation after March this year because of the havoc the lockdown has caused.

The attempt to boost sales figures with tabloids publishing mainly in the townships in South Africa was a spectacular success just after the turn of the century, with Daily Sun selling more than 500 000 copies a day and Sunday Sun almost 250 000. Daily Sun now sells less than 100 000 a day and Sunday Sun has been closed down.

It's hard to compete with a smart phone that fits in your pocket.

The FT website. Most major newspaper titles have a heavy presence on the Internet

With all due respect to print journalists all over the world, the best journalists are more and more opting for the internet, thankfully creating pockets of excellence, balanced reporting and thoughtful comment around titles such as the New York Times, Financial Times, Bloomberg, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Guardian, etc (note that the scales have tipped heavily in favour of financial and economic journalism. When I started out financial journalists were seconded from the ordinary newsroom because they could vaguely understand what was being said in company reports).

The nature of the internet also means people all over the world have access to the same news, in some ways a blessing and in others a danger. But at least you don't have to live in Manhattan, DC, London and a handful of other cities to have access to quality reporting.

Rather than agonise whether newspapers will last or not (they won't, at the very least not nearly in the dominant position they had until a decade or two ago), we should be asking whether journalism will last against the attacks of fake news and other forms of news manipulation.

It's a facile argument that right-wing thinking is responsible for this, because the whole ethos of political correctness and shouting down anybody who dares raise an opposing view, is just as damaging. We all long for the days of balanced reporting, giving the reader enough information to make up their own mind.

You only have to think about the state capture reporting of the past few years to realise how critically important the dissemination of reliable news is.

I'll be reading all about it in the flattened tree stumps (augmented by online sources) until the day I die ... or the day my favourite newspapers finally die.

One of the gardens at Victoria Yards 

And in other news

There's a board meeting tonight and a business meeting on Wednesday. 

On Wednesday 16th September we'll be hearing more about the seeds project that the club undertook during the darker days of lockdown, and from the people who received them.

The speakers are Siya Ndlangamandla and Thobile Chittenden of Makers Valley at Victoria Yards, Kim Harrisberg of the Reuters Foundation and Anne Steffny of Inner City Projects

The meeting of 23 September will be an evening social meeting, but at the time of writing the decision to do it online or face to face was still pending.

The meeting on 30 September marks the visit of the DG, Annemarie Mostert. She has said she'd prefer an online meeting.

A Thought for the Week: To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. - Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)


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