Journalists are now in the same situation as steel workers in the1970s: they are destined to disappear, but they don’t know it. That was the assessment of a banker from BNP-Paribas at the French national press federation’s conference in Strasbourg in 2006. His words caused a sensation, but the statistics support him: having lost more than 2,300 jobs last year, the French press is going through a similar crisis to the United States, where more than 24,500 jobs were axed in 2009. Only 300,000 now work in newspapers in the US, compared to 415,000 a decade ago (according to Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, quoted by Market Watch. The Washington Post has closed its regional bureaus, and the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune have filed for bankruptcy protection. Every national daily in France, apart from the sports daily, L’Equipe, has lost money.
The decline is not surprising. According to the management consultancy Bain and Company, the internet increased its share of global profits from the creative industries from 4 per cent to 22 per cent in the last 10 years, at the expense of the press, which saw its profits fall from 40 per cent to 14 per cent. The transfer of advertising from newspapers to the net is often blamed, but the public has also become disillusioned with the content supplied by a journalistic elite that has lost credibility: newspapers are seen as politically biased, following the crowd, and uninterested in the needs of their readers.
Last year French newspaper editors rejected the idea of a press council that would have made them more accountable to the public. “If you give people control they will use it. If you don’t, you lose them,” writes Jeff Jarvis in his book What Would Google Do? The digital revolution calls into question the authority of journalists, and while the crisis may compromise newspapers’ ability to carry out investigations, it does not mean there is less popular expression.
The interactive web has encouraged huge numbers of people to produce their own news photos, videos, commentaries and analysis. On stories such as the Asian tsunami or the riots in Iran, as many eye witness accounts, facts and opinions came from blogs and social networking sites as from the traditional media. The internet is setting the news agenda, with the press now forced to judge the importance of a story by how much coverage it has had on the web.
High added value
But rather than making their own content more distinctive so they stand out on the internet, newspapers think the answer lies in being fast and ubiquitous. They are trying to be everywhere, all the time: blogs, videos, links to search engines, Facebook and Twitter. Newspapers are banking on smartphones, like Apple’s iPhone: they hope to get mobile phone users to pay for news, since internet users are too accustomed to getting it for free. But why pay for a news service on mobiles when 90 per cent of the 100,000 phone applications available are free?
Meanwhile, fewer journalists are expected to work harder and better. The risk is they will spread themselves too thinly across multimedia tasks, rather than concentrate on searching for original stories and unusual angles. If they want to attract an audience on the web, Jeff Jarvis advises journalists to concentrate on producing content with high added value: “Do what you do best and link to the rest”.
News production has never been under greater threat: the crisis has led to a reduction in foreign correspondents, editors and factcheckers, and less in-depth investigative reporting. To survive, newspapers have been forced to merge, or to become sweatshops with underpaid journalists churning out cheap news. Having made editorial content bland to attract advertisers, publishers now use the fact their competitors are copying them as a pretext for merging. If employing less experienced staff and producing lower-quality news continues, it will turn more readers away from newspapers, hastening their decline.
Could the answer be to move away from paper and save on printing and distribution costs? It is difficult to recoup costs even with an entirely online newsroom, given the depreciation of the online audience in a world of abundant advertising, and the expense of paying internet distributors: a news site must pay 30 per cent commission if it wants to be on Apple; half of its advertising revenue to appear on Google; and 70 per cent to Amazonif it wants access to its Kindle e-book reader. And publishers see none of the revenue that search engines generate from key word searches.
Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Wall Street Journal, The (London) Times and the New York Post, has threatened to remove his papers’ articles from Google later this year if the internet giant does not agree to share its revenue. He has also called for publishers to form a consortium to charge for news on the web. But it is clear Murdoch would not withdraw his titles unless his competitors did the same. He knows news has a short shelf life. And Google would suffer little, as it gets limited revenue from its news sites, which only account for between 1.5 per cent and 3 per cent of searches.
Some believe charging is the answer. Apple has unveiled its iPad tablet computer, where newspapers may be able to charge customers to view articles online.
According to the Boston Consulting Group, 54 per cent of the French public are prepared to pay for news online, especially local news, but not more than $4.5 a month. That is a tiny sum when you consider that a subscription site such as Mediapart needs three times that to survive. News on the internet has been free for so long, it is difficult to turn back the tide.
The responsibility for this situation lies with newspaper editors more than the internet. They chose to comply with the editorial agenda of the advertising market. They made their websites free, relying on advertising revenue, rather than pursuing a mixed business model.
But the withdrawal of advertisers has a positive side: it will wean publishers off advertising, and force them to turn to their readers. It will also chase away newspaper owners who only want to make a profit. Journalists will have to reinvent a future for themselves. This may involve collaborating with the online audience, who can inform them of stories, and produce the news with them. The press cannot ignore these online communities if it wants to appeal to people on the internet. Young people judge the validity of information by the network of friends who passed it on, rather than by which media outlet broadcast it. Americans already devote 17 per cent of their time to blogging and using social networking sites, but only 0.56 per cent to reading newspapers online according to the Nieman Journalism Lab.
The new generation of news sites has found it important to have several different sources of finance: Mediapart charges readers and has online shopping; Rue89 carries advertising, and offers internet training. In the future it may be possible to commission online communities to carry out investigations, funded by non-profit organisations like ProPublica or Spot.US. Even the concept of a public service news press is gaining support.
Greater access to information in a digital society can increase freedom and combat exclusion – providing people can find their way through the jungle. The danger is we will have a “two-speed” internet. On the one hand, “info-obesity”: an incessant flow of news titbits, in no order of importance and without context, free of charge. On the other, selected information for those who can pay for it. [Or our CounterPunch model – a substantive site that is free. AC/JSC.]
If the media is going to provide real social benefits, its future must not depend on how much profit it brings owners, nor on the outcome of a duel between Murdoch and Google. The circulation of information that relies on its rarity value is by its nature unpredictable. In 1845 James Gordon Bennett, founder of the New York Herald, described the telegraph as “a new mode of circulating intelligence” that could put newspapers out of business .
Translated by Stephanie Irvine
MARIE BÉNILDE is a journalist. This article appears in the March edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.