THE BLOG

The Truth About Newspapers in the 21st Century

12/06/2012 10:40 am ET | Updated Feb 05, 2013

Are newspapers still the most influential and reliable news medium around? Did not the emergence of new media sound the death knell for the print industry? And are people really reading newspapers anymore?

These are questions whose answers smack of not one but many confirmation biases. While the notion that newspapers are dying a pitiable death eggs on, reality debunks the myth and potrays a different picture.

No, the presses have not been cursed to extinction by random online clicks, not all beat reporters are losing their jobs to amateur, click-happy citizen reporters and no, the emergence of internet has not spelt an apocalyptic doom for newspapers. Newspapers, on the contrary, are surviving and doing quite alright. They are progressing to a new era of embracing innovations and digital engagement.

It is well known in the world of media that information is paramount and access to it, supremely empowering. The winners are clearly those who provide an easy doorway to reliable and irrefutable information. We are talking about those who do not yo-yo back and forth with multiple apologies over erroneous reports or cover-up tales.

There's a fair chance that some of us would remember at least one instance of a television news channel apologizing for a never-happened erroneous report or finding an online story to be a hoax, moments after it went viral. A phenomenon analysts blame on the fast pace of news and the 'need for speed' broadcast newsrooms for.

But despite the juggernaut of broadcast journalism, new media, news apps and podcasts cropping left and right, over half of the world's population turns to a newspaper for credible information, every day.

That's a neat 2.2 billion people reading a newspaper in the print format and another 600 million in the digital form. WAN-IFRA stats point out that this figure would rise remarkably if Sunday and weekly newspapers are included in the count as well.

Right from the docks of a shipyard in Denmark to the countryside farmlands of Myanmar, a newspaper finds a pair of eyes to browse through it, everyday. According to Comscore, and World Press Trends, newspaper readers outnumber the total number of Internet users (2.3 billion) around the world. And, there are twice as many newspaper content consumers as mobile phone users in the world.

Add to it a legacy of 400 years of print publishing and it will be a piece of cake to understand why even digital media platforms piggyback on traditional print media for content aggregation.

Thomas Jacob is a man who has witnessed this unique phenomenon from a vantage point. As the Chief Operating Officer of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, Jacob is privy to global media trends and has an interesting story to tell.

"The global circulations rose slightly in 2011 after a dip in 2010. Circulation saw an upward swing of 4.2 percent higher than what was in 2007. Asia has seen the fastest growth in newspaper circulation with China and India leading from the front," says Jacob.

Further, to assume that newspapers are collapsing due to an onslaught of digital media innovations might not be realistic at all. Newspapers, on the contrary, are integrating technological innovations to amplify their content distribution and outreach. The distribution process now relies not just on the door-to-door vendor but a few clicks here and there as well.

Norway, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Austria remain the world's most popular newspaper markets, although Asian markets are quickly catching up with Hong Kong, for example, attracting investors who believe there is still an opportunity in printed newspapers. China and India are teeming with a market potential of unprecedented numbers. Asia is increasingly emerging as the epicentre of the newspaper industry growth.

Though, the situation is not as bright in the Western world. Newspaper circulations fell by around 17 percent over a five-year period from 2007-2011 and some newspapers are still struggling to spring back.

How does all this augur for the cash registers of the newspaper publishers? Well, if one goes by Jacob and the World Press Trends statistics, circulation revenue still accounts for nearly 50 percent of global newspaper revenues, which is mostly a positive trend to note. And since the circulation of a newspaper depends principally on its core content, it points one back to the thumb rule of the media business: "Content is king."

"It is, therefore, extremely important that as publishers focus on their digital ambitions, they continue investing in content and leverage the brand of their print products into the digital realm," adds Jacob.

Jacob's opinions are befittingly matched by statistical evidence. ComScore statistics reveal that over 40 percent of the global digital audience reads a newspaper online.

However, not all is hunky dory for the newspaper industry. Despite exhibiting global growth patterns, it has suffered a sharp decline in advertising revenues.

As of 2012, newspapers accounted for 19 percent of global advertising revenues, television 40 percent, Internet 18 percent and other mediums accounted for 23 percent. Figures released by Zenith Optimedia suggest that newspapers account for almost $100 billion of global advertising, though this number has been dipping downwards. North America itself accounted for 72 percent of the decline in the total value of global advertising revenues.

Figures available from Zenith Optimedia and advertising associations also show that the combined value of digital media advertising is only 2.2 percent of all press advertising. Digital does not eat into the advertising earnings of the print.

However, e-innovations and newsreading apps have definitely cut a dent in the readership of newspapers. Amazon has already reported that over half of their book sales are for the tablet versions. French eveninger, Le Monde, has also reported that the reading times of eReader applications are as high as that of printed newspapers.

According to the Pew Research Centre and The Economist, 11% of American adults own a tablet of some sort and 53% of tablet users consume news on their tablets daily. Three out of ten tablet users say they spend more time reading news on their tablets than they did before purchasing the tablet.

The above numbers indicate statistics for the consumption of news by audiences in a digital format. Most of this digitized news, however, still rides on the back of content created by the parent newspaper or organization.

Newspapers are now proactively incorporating cutting-edge innovations and user-friendly models for online content, be it paywall, freemium, metered or free in order to keep the audiences engaged. The dynamics of engagement might have changed but the driving principle of the industry has not budged a bit. Content remains king, context, queen and customer, the absolute kingmaker.

Thomas Jacob has his eyes set on the industry and his breath held tight. He knows newspapers are gearing up for the next round of revamp. And as he puts it, transforming from a mono media to multimedia, multichannel, and multiplatform approach is no longer good enough. Newspapers have to make the strategic transformation into a smart media company that understands its customers and creates a portfolio of products that will in turn address the changing needs of the customers.

These are the next generation newspapers that will survive and probably create another 400 years of incredible history.