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14.03.2009 Feature Article

For Newspapers, The Digital Audience Is Hard News

Certain things do not change. No matter what happens to technology, the essence of a newspaper would remain the provision of news. It has nothing to do with the paper or the advertisements; it is the news, in all forms, both hard and soft, including the kickers that often do not tell much. Advertisements sustain the business when newspaper sales continue to fall, but advertisements, even advertorials, are not news. They are just ads: they add up to the core, even though they end up determining our salaries. Newspaper advertisement revenues are falling these days, thanks to the emergence of technology-driven media that promise immediacy, wider coverage and a finer quality. But that has not replaced the traditional newspaper: one is news in your palms; the other is news on a palmtop. The feeling is not the same. So, often it makes sense to invoke Thomas Jefferson's famous words about the trade: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

That was then. If Jefferson were alive today, would he make the same statement, preferring to leave the business of governance in the hands of newspaper editors? Well, maybe he would smile when he sees how the industry has survived against the odds of technology, and how serious professionals continue to churn out quality material when standards are generally considered low. But he may also foam at the mouth when he realises that there is a monster called the internet, a creation that is sucking the print from the traditional newspaper. He would perhaps wonder how a mobile phone the size of the thumb, has replaced the broadsheet for some 20 year olds. The internet seems to be everywhere and dictating how very old traditions should work. The Washington based Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, found in a 2008 survey that 58% of readers preferred the internet as their source of news while 28% remained loyal to the traditional newspaper. So, perhaps, it is only expected that internet news websites are growing at a rate that the traditional reporter would only describe as sensational. Industry figures put it at some 60% in the last three years. ComScore, a marketing company based in Reston, USA, says in 2008 alone, news websites garnered about 7.3 million more readers. It, therefore, sits well with the statistics that the young owners of Google, and Microsoft owner Bill Gates, are on this year's Forbes rich list, with Gates' Microsoft being the first. There isn't a mention of rich newspaper owners. In fact, many of the largest newspaper businesses in the States are in debt. Subscriptions have fallen, perhaps in favour of internet news. It is hard news that owners of the popular Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times have filed for bankruptcy. It is even 'harder' to believe that the authoritative New York Times, the International Tribune and the Boston Globe had to borrow $225 million from banks to sail afloat.

The story in the developing world may not be as encouraging as it should be. It has often been asked: How many people read the newspapers anyway? Those who bother to listen to Talking Point and other news analysis programmes may be our sure audience. Well, that may not be a good barometer to gauge readership, because any time I mention names of pals in my writings, I usually have to phone and tell them before they buy copies of the papers. These are upper middle class graduates at the top of their professions, some of them in public relations at government ministries, where newspapers are subscribed. With a big illiterate population, it means the bulk of the people beyond the major towns and cities do not get to read a newspaper. Perhaps, this is where radio and FM news become invaluable. But do they fill the illiteracy gap? No, they don't. Reading a paper is never the same thing as listening to an abridged version of a newspaper report on radio.

Yet, the business is thriving. We have had a couple of new additions to the newspaper fleet, with some old ones going through strategic re-branding. Some weeklies are now publishing daily and some dailies extending their reach. We don't have reliable information on sales, except the already known fact that there are not as many readers as there are literates. At least, there are no reliable reports of papers folding up and their owners going into farming. Newspapers still shape public opinion and sometimes dictate the direction of government policy. The industry is revered and still respected by even those who have expressed great impiety in the words of Jefferson. Politicians may not resign their positions on account of newspaper publications, but they sit up and perhaps work harder. It doesn't matter if it is a weekly newspaper that is read by a handful of sympathisers, or a broadsheet as powerful as the Financial Times or the New York Times. News is news, and people expect something out of news. Quality is always another thing to talk about, but at least the trade is stable. Well, the ones that are struggling have done well not to betray the symptoms. But what is the future of the business beyond good headlines and revealing stories? Will the 'old fashioned' newspaper survive the digital revolution? Are digital audiences going to ditch the newsprint altogether with time?

So, what are smart publishing houses doing about the situation? They are embracing modern technology and going trendy. Young readers, those below 30, find it 'cool' tapping their news from mobile gadgets and from the internet. The broadsheet is too big for them and appears to say too much about too little. The UK Observer and the New York Times are big loads to carry, let alone read them, especially on a weekend. Will they prefer the tabloids instead? Well, they are just as good but not trendier for the iPod generation. Of course, they can always turn to the community newspapers. That, too, is full of local stuff, which is not exactly 'cool.' It seems it is the not the news that matters to the young reader; it is the presentation. And here, newspapers seem to be losing their agenda setting advantage, at least in the business sense, because these young readers are setting the agenda, determining how news should be packaged. The tradition has to cave in and give them what they want. For instance, the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) is encouraging newspapers to take advantage of mobile technology. There are millions of wireless subscribers in the world, most of which use data services, with fantastic options and downloadable features. The New York Times has already responded to the call, by signing a deal with Apple's iPhone. What that means is that, instead of walking to the newsstand to buy a paper, a feature on a mobile phone would do just that.

Does that sound like a threat? No, it is an opportunity to embrace technology, and perhaps seek to extend tradition to space. It is still hard news, because it is a challenge, but a refreshing one. Nearly all our newspapers have news websites, where readers, especially those outside their circulation areas, can catch the news. Years ago, we had bundles of newspapers posted to us from Ghana. Newspapers that had offices in London made copies available for loyal readers. These were old news by the time we read them, but we were happy all the same. Today, the computer has saved us the inconvenience of waiting, and sometimes the cost of buying. We get all sections of our favourite papers on a page, with subsections neatly laid out on the sides for our comfort. A single click produces in a second what the editor of our favourite paper has spent hours to write and perhaps rewritten. And, unlike the traditional newspaper, which didn't have the capacity to interact with us past the reading stage, we are able to type our comments against a newspaper story, and have others instantly react to what we said. In a fraction of a second, we have a community of commentators from various parts of the globe, sharing ideas on government policy. It makes it easy to gauge public opinion on many issues. This privilege is sometimes abused by readers (see my work on commenting on commentaries), but it is not altogether a bad thing. At least, writers have the opportunity to post corrections against their publications, even as it is still being read.

Just a few years ago, we would have had to dig archives to look for references. To see what the article I just referred to said, all you need do is copy and paste the title of the work in a search engine. We often get more than we asked for: The internet is kind enough to reproduce related articles on the subject of the search. The convenience is priceless. The reference becomes easier if the referred article is hyperlinked. It saves you the trouble of coping and pasting. A tiny click on the hyperlinked words sends you to the referred text, so that you have one text in a window superimposed on another, making comparison easy. And pictures count more, because we have the option to load more pictures in a story, a facility that old fashioned newspapers do not have. We have the liberty of adding up or pulling out images or texts. Sometimes there are voice attachments to stories, which complete the communication process by bringing together the reader, the writer and the subject of the news at the convenience of the reader.

The media landscape is exciting but also very challenging, especially for the traditional newspaper. Big and small newspapers feel the pressure to tap into modern mobile technology, to survive. When advertisement revenues fall, sales from newspapers should be able to sustain the business. The papers made sales when there were very few readers. A few stumbled and fell along the road, but many have lived on, even if with difficulty. Technology was not as powerful as it is today, so the business should do better with the support of the internet and the iPhone. After all, it is technological change that brought about the modern newspaper. So, it is no use for the traditional newspaper to complain about younger readers turning to the computer and ditching the cold words on the newsprint. Instead, it presents an opportunity to improve our quality. By going digital, we would cut down on paper, fuel, maintenance costs on machinery and taxes. Once newspapers get the content right (and they must get it right), they will always run the show. In any case, news websites are merely online representations of the newspapers.

Of course, the internet still poses a significant threat to even rich newspaper houses. Community newspapers in America are reported to be doing fine in the face of mobile technology, and at a time of recession, when sales are low. NAA reports that 85% of readers over 18 years read the old fashioned newspaper. In our case, we have no community or even regional newspapers. In America, they hold the future of the trade.

Benjamin Tawiah is a journalist. He lives in Ottawa, Canada

Email: [email protected], [email protected]

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin
Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin, © 2009

This author has authored 235 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: KwesiTawiahBenjamin

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