There has been a lot of talk lately about the future of journalism. Negative forecasts of the demise of the print newspaper echo around the world.
“High levels of debt, falling revenues and collapsing share prices, have led many [newspapers] into a vicious cost-cutting cycle. More than 12,000 journalists have lost their jobs so far this year, on top of about 2,200 in 2007,” wrote Christopher Warren in The Future of Journalism report.
Even the very small players such as the newspaper I edit and write for, Eco news and its online companion, Eco online, have taken direct hits due to dramatic losses in advertising revenue.
It looks like we journalists need to take a leaf out of … um … nature. We need to start adapting to our changing environment … and quickly. After all, species become extinct because they lack the physical attributes required to exist in a changed environment.
Late last year Crikey publisher, Eric Beecher suggested we need a more efficient, focused journalistic model.
“A leaner, bespoke newspaper that bristled with ideas and curiosity because it no longer had the requirement to appeal to a broad market. A newspaper that treated news as the commodity it now is and built on the news with backgrounding, probing and analysis. A newspaper with fewer pages, vastly less lifestyle and advertorial journalism and much more certainty about its place in the life of its (smaller) audience.”
The take-home message in my mind is specialisation, although I have one main concern. What if the remaining readers of the print editions are heading down the same track as the old newspaper model? That is, extinction.
An aging audience, without any new blood can’t be good for the future of any business. Similar to a species without a diverse and constantly renewed gene pool.
For the younger audience, what is news? The rapid sound bites they hear on the box or increasingly, online? The tweets on their mobile phones? Short, sharp messages without much depth?
It looks like us journalists must quickly realise that our pace of adaptation must at least match the speed of technological advancements. It is, after all, these technological changes (and perhaps inflexible management practices) that are altering our natural habitat.
But before we start scrapping our print editions it is probably worth reading this 2006 report, titled Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership. Although it is an American context and several years old, the trends amongst the younger audience are probably similar in most countries.
“For the most part, online news has evolved as a supplemental source that is used along with traditional news media outlets. It is valued most for headlines and convenience, not detailed, in-depth reporting,” according to the report.
So if newspaper readership is falling, are people simply craving online headlines? Will the new newspapers, as described by Eric Beecher fill the niche of in-depth, focused reporting, albeit with tiny audiences? How much will people pay for the trouble of reading when most sound bites are free and can be heard (but perhaps not absorbed) whilst performing several other tasks?
What ever happens, one thing is certain — the future will bring rapid change. Journalism needs to look for the simple answers. Ones that are not purely technological. A range of solutions that are flexible. Solutions that perhaps mimic and take lessons from nature.
And of course in the meantime we need to continually engage, listen to, and interest our audiences. We can’t stick to the old formula solely because it was once respected. As Charles Darwin was once reported as saying: “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me”.
Another statement from the old man of evolution reads as if it was written for modern journalists and perhaps best describes our solution.
“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
It’s on that note that I should stop procrastinating and get back to producing some quality content for the next issue of Eco news.