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The changes of journalism in the United States and Europe

April 8, 2011

Every technological development brings some sort of chaos and forces people to rethink the status quo. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440 changed the meaning and the utility of the scribes.[1] The telegraph was first seen as a threat to newspapers.[2] Again in the 1930s, with the Great Depression and the rise of radio, hundreds of newspapers ceased operation.[3] And according to several experts, the decline of newspapers actually “began at the end of the Second World War,” when newspaper circulation couldn’t keep the pace of the “population increase” and of “the social changes due to working women and internal migrations.”[4] The rise of television caused a big circulation crisis and forced newspapers to change and adapt to a new kind of communication.[5]

Technology has always changed journalism and it will continue to do so in the future, even after today’s revolution – the Internet – will have been accepted and integrated in the journalism business model. As my previous article “Decline, Decline, Decline” showed clearly enough, the current (economic) crisis of print media is worrisome. Newspapers are indeed losing revenues and readers. And the industry will be forced, in one way or the other, to rethink its business model while maintaining high quality standards. In order to understand this crisis and find a way out of it, it is necessary to learn about its roots and causes. Only then we will be able to find alternatives and propose solutions. When did this crisis begin? And where is it leading newspapers?

In his article published on the Wall Street Journal in December 2007 before he left his managing editor job there to become president of Pro Publica, Paul E. Steiger gives an account of what happened to journalism in the last 50 years. The ups and downs of the newspaper industry, which culminated in what he calls, in terms of quality, “the golden age of American journalism” in the mid-1960s, continued well into the 1970s and 1980s, until the advent of the Internet in the 1990s. In response to the spread of the so-called paper killer, “newspapers sought to do three things: cut costs, diversify and, above all, embrace the new technology and dominate it.” Cutbacks, however, have strongly affected quality journalism, as “the reductions have fallen particularly heavily on foreign and investigative … reporting, which are the most expensive categories to produce.”

Steiger ascribes the fundamental cause of the crisis to the invention of Google, in 1998. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who now owns the Wall Street Journal, accused the famous search engine of “stealing journalism from traditional media outlets” by breaking the copyright law. Google News, however, just gives “a set of headlines and two-line links meant to steer traffic (and therefore ad potential) to the news organization that first ran the story.”[6] Google doesn’t reproduce – therefore, steal – newspapers’ content. “Indeed,” James Fallows notes in his article, “in this practice [Google News] is the opposite of ‘aggregators’ like the Huffington Post, which often ‘excerpt’ enough of someone else’s story that readers don’t bother to click through to the source.” However, if news organizations really consider Google a thief and they want to “protect” their content, they can require the search engine not to use their articles on Google News. “Of course nobody dares to do this because nobody can afford excluding its content from the world’s most famous search engine,” Pedemonde claims in his book. In fact, if Google gains a lot of money by indexing all major news briefs, but so do the news organizations whose articles are linked and visited by users through Google News.

In 1995, however, another “real economic catastrophe for newspapers”[7] was created: Craigslist. With its simple and functional design, Craig Newmark’s website has been able to destroy one of the most important pillars on which newspaper economy was built over time. Classified ads simply moved from newspapers to the web, where they can be much more profitable and user-friendly. Among the advantages, in addition to the amount of classifieds that can be posted online, there is the possibility of attaching photographs of objects and entities like apartments, as well as links and email addresses to facilitate communication between sellers and buyers.

According to The State of the News Media 2010, as we can see from the chart on the left, classified advertising dramatically dropped from 2000, when it was worth $19.6 billion, to 2009, when it was estimated to be worth only $6 billion. Craigslist, of course, is just one of the many examples – such as Amazon and eBay – signifying how the old newspaper business model cannot work anymore.

However, I think that looking at Craigslist and the like as the main and only cause for newspaper decline is misleading. As I showed in my previous article “Decline, Decline, Decline,” newspapers are registering not only a decline in ad revenues, but also a decline in circulation and readers. Why is it that less and less people don’t go buy their morning newspapers anymore before going to work? According to Pedemonte, the fact that many people, especially young adults, now read the news online is not the sole and main reason. In his article for Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Martin Langeveld demonstrates that, in fact, only 3% of newspaper reading happens online. “Newspapers’ loss of centrality … has deeper causes, linked to the revolutions of our lifestyles and to the changed use of time in our daily lives,” Pedemonte claims. Because of the web, newspapers have lost what he calls their “socio-cultural role.”

In his article, Joshua Benton easily explains what this role was: “Those people interested in the Milwaukee City Council needed a way to find the information they wanted, and newspapers made that connection. Department stores wanted to be able to reach people who needed clothes and appliances – and newspapers made that connection, too.” Today, Milwaukee civic activists can open their own blog, keep each other informed of events and demonstrations, and post their comments. In the same way, retailers connect to their clients through their websites and their newsletters. In the past, well until the 1990s, newspapers connected communities, created common identities and registered the development of society. Today, the Internet has caused a dispersion of readers. On the one hand, we have the possibility to deepen our own interests by visiting the websites and blogs that deal with those particular, often specialized and niche, subjects. On the other hand, we use Facebook and Twitter to develop our community identities and share our lives with our friends and acquaintances. We don’t need newspapers anymore to serve our socio-cultural needs.

As Pedemonte claims, newspaper readership has declined not only because of our revolutionized lifestyles but also because of the way we manage our daily time. In his book L’Ultima Copia del New York Times, Vittorio Sabadin says that “it has been calculated that in order to read a whole issue of the Washington Post one would need approximately 24 hours.” Now, who has that much time? Today’s frantic lifestyles allow us, maybe, to nibble cuts and bites of news on the Internet during our lunch break or a particularly boring moment. Nobody has the time to sit down and read a whole paper copy of The New York Times. At the end of the day, readers will feel they have wasted their money for a product that they couldn’t even use or enjoy in its completeness.

One of the most read dailies in the world, the Japanese Asahi Shimbun has monitored the time its buyers usually spend reading the newspaper. In five years, men in their thirties reduced their reading time from 20 to 11 minutes, while men in their twenties from 10 to 7 minutes.

According to Sabadin, compared to new technologies such as portable computers, iPhones, smart phones, iPads, Kindles, and the like, “newspapers have remained way back behind: they are slow, expensive to produce and difficult to use. They require time and effort. Many are still in black and white, like a century ago. Their layouts are too big and they have no appeal to new generations.”

However, today, like no other historical period, people want to be informed. This fact is demonstrated by the number of people who surf news websites. According to The State of the News Media 2010, of the top 199 website, 95 are newspaper sites, such as (18.520 million unique visitors), (9.810 million), and (9.311 million). The problem is that news organizations have not yet found the way to gain enough money out of it. As Google CEO Eric Schmidt told James Fallows, “Newspapers don’t have a demand problem; they have a business-model problem.” Newspapers have always based their revenues on three major sources – “newsstand sales, subscriptions and advertising,” as Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of the Aspen institute, wrote. All these three sources are declining, as we have seen. And all the people who access newspaper content on the web do so for free. “This is not a business model that makes sense,” Isaacson says. Maybe it did 20 years ago, when “the easy Internet ad dollars of the late 1990s enticed newspapers and magazines to put all of their content, plus a whole lot of blogs and whistles, onto their websites for free.” But today, with the recession, this model is no longer sustainable.

One of the first businessmen who decided to charge for content on the web was media magnate Rupert Murdoch. His Wall Street Journal is behind a paywall, while other newspapers such as the Financial Times charge their readers under a “metered” model – i.e. readers can access a limited number of free articles, but must pay for more. In January 2010, also the New York Times announced that it would charge its readers based on the same model, but so far the system has not been put into practice. This hesitation is easily understandable. The Journal and the Financial Times are very specialized newspapers, whereas the New York Times covers more general topics. A paywall would risk hijacking readers to free, high-quality news websites such as the BBC. Moreover, some experiments in Europe have demonstrated that the paywall did not work. The Spanish daily El País had only 18.000 subscribers when it required payment. The number rose to 800.000 when free access was restored.[8] For this model to work, all newspapers should go behind a paywall. After all, as Rupert Murdoch said, “When [readers] have got nowhere else to go they will start paying.”

However, subscriptions to online editions alone won’t save the industry. “With newspapers entering bankruptcy even as their audience grows, the threat is not just to the companies that own them, but also to the news itself,” New York Times columnist David Carr was cited as saying by Isaacson in his article.Good journalism, and especially investigative journalism, is expensive.  Probably we will never go back to the 1970s and 80s, when, as Paul Steiger recalls, reporters were allowed to “hire helicopters or small planes” to fly “over refineries and tank fields to look for evidence” during the 1979 fuel shortages. “The lesson was clear: When it came to getting an important story, don’t worry about the cost.” “I think that, nowadays, would be quite difficult” former Economist journalist Tana De Zulueta told me in a personal interview. Does this mean that investigative reporting is disappearing? Of course not. But what worries the industry, at least in the Unites States, is the amount of investigative work that is produced.

How could news organizations come out of the crisis, then? What are the solutions? It’s hard to say, but some journalists and experts have already tried to answer these questions. In his article, Isaacson writes that online subscriptions used today by the Journal or the FT will not solve the problem. He suggests, instead, “to come up with an iTunes-easy method of micropayment,” whereby users can easily pay a small amount of money for each article they want to read. His argument is that if “Steve Jobs got music consumers (of all people) comfortable with the concept of paying 99 cents for a tune instead of Napsterizing an entire industry,” then why shouldn’t this model work for news as well?

In his article, Save The News, Not The Newspaper, Eric Alterman says that “a more promising idea is to call on foundations and philanthropists to commit the kind of cash that supports university endowments to the newspaper business and turn it into a nonprofit enterprise.” The same idea is put forward in the report The Reconstruction of American Journalism by Leonard Downie, Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a Columbia Journalism School professor. The report says that “U.S. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland has introduced legislation to allow newspapers to become nonprofits for educational purposes” but “the bill, which has not moved anywhere in Congress, does not address how a newspaper losing money, especially one saddled with significant debt or other liabilities, could be converted into a viable nonprofit.”

In his article, Alterman takes into consideration another solution: government funding. “If we can bail out banks and auto companies” he asks his readers, “why not an industry on which the health of democracy depends?” The same idea, again, is presented by Downie and Schudson in their report. “Most Americans have a deep distrust of direct government involvement or political influence in independent news reporting,” they say. “But this should not preclude government support for news reporting any more than it has for the arts, the humanities, and sciences.” Alterman, Downie and Schudson all agree that such subsidies in European countries, where government funding has long been practiced, don’t keep newspapers to print criticism against the governments.

While talking about this same argument, Tana De Zulueta named the BBC as one of the most positive examples of “state-owned enterprises.” In her opinion, the BBC is a valuable news organization for the whole world. When she was in Rwanda and Niger as an analyst for the European Union, she says that people on the street, on their own accord, told her that the most important media for them was the BBC native language radio broadcast. “That’s because the BBC journalistic standards … transferred to a native language radio broadcast and gave native people an instrument of information and editorial independence that was completely inexistent in that contest” she explains. What about if the BBC, which is state-owned and state-funded, hadn’t existed? However, different countries, different beliefs. “Many journalists would let 95 percent of America’s newspapers disappear before they considered accepting a nickel from the government,” Alterman ironically comments.

Who knows where journalism will go from here. The situation appears to be critical from an economic point of view. The industry must find a way of increasing its revenues pretty quickly; otherwise quality journalism and democracy itself will suffer.

[1] Joshua Benton, “The Internet: How It Changes Everything About Journalism,” Nieman Reports, Fall 2008, 22 Nov. 2010

[2] Vittorio Sabbadin, L’Ultima Copia del New York Times: il Futuro dei Giornali di carta, 2nd ed, (Roma: Donzelli, 2007) 10.

[3] …. Words and Pictures, 270.

[4] Sabadin 138.

[5] Enrico Pedemonte, Morte e Resurrezione dei Giornali: Chi Li Uccide, Chi Li Salverà (Milano: Garzanti, 2010) 92.

[6] James Fallows, “How To Save The News,” The Atlantic, June 2010, 3 March 2011

[7] Pedemonte 54.

[8] Sabadin 66.

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