The print media in the US is facing the greatest financial crisis since its inception – essentially caused by the internet which has changed the way entire generations get their news. But I am getting ahead of myself ………………

When I was about twelve years old while living in Mombasa (Kenya), my father got on my case about the fact that I did not read the newspaper and was therefore ill-informed about what was going on it the world. He pestered me to a point where I started to read the paper reluctantly and with some resentment. Interestingly, over time I developed a genuine fascination with current affairs and politics – an interest that has stayed with me ever since. Now this was before the days when TV was available in Kenya – and the only sources of news were the newspaper and BBC radio transmissions which I also listened to avidly as it crackled through our short-wave radio.

It was a remarkable time in Kenya because the movement to gain independence from Britain was in full swing so there was a lot going on – and one did not have to be a political junkie to be enthralled with the nationalism that was prevalent and the efforts by the white settlers with their privileged life to thwart the freedom struggle. In time to come, after I moved to England and then to the US, my interest never waned – it just morphed into politics and other happenings in the country that I lived.

I came to appreciate my father’s admonitions to be an informed individual – though it was not a sentiment that I felt at the time. I will add that I tried to do the same thing with each of my children with remarkably little success – actually, at times it seemed that they reacted to my attempts to get them interested in the news by almost developing an aversion of sorts to listening or reading about current events, etc. I will add that my grandson, DJ, seems to show some level of interest in listening to the news, etc – though I am not sure whether it is something that he does in my presence to keep me happy!

Well, the years have rolled on and my interest has never really diminished – but what has happened is that my sources of information have become more varied and abundant with the advent of the internet. What is unusual for someone of my generation, is that I have gone off the print media and my only source of information nowadays is the the net – and for me it is almost a dream come true that I can read the news from almost any part of the world and a wide variety of sources with the click of a mouse!

I am clearly not typical of my generation – most of my generation still relies on the conventional newspaper for their news. But my children’s generation almost eschew the print media in just about any form and therein lies the crisis facing the conventional news media today.

Most people in their twenties and thirties are totally reliant on the net for their news – and there is no indication of a reversal of this trend. With it has come a decline in newspaper circulation and because of this decline there has also been a corresponding adverse impact on advertising in the print media. So esteemed newspapers are facing serious financial problems including bankruptcy – this includes newspapers ranging from the New York Times to the Chicago Tribune. The largest circulation paper in the US – USA Today – is bleeding badly. Many small town local papers have folded. One associates obsolescence with technology – but it is not an exaggeration to say that newspapers are becoming obsolete.

All of this has immense implications because the type of resources that old media put into investigative reporting may end up being a thing of the past. Can one imagine Watergate ever having been uncovered without the resources and influence of the Washington Post? Digital media – at least at this point – does not have the resources to do the kind of investigative journalism that the conventional news media used to do.

Attempts by media companies to generate revenues from those who access the net for news has not been successful. Rupert Murdoch, the media magnate, is making noises about taking on Google in an effort to prevent free access to news sites he controls. This is a major event since it pits the most powerful media magnate with a major internet player and the most used search engine. Supporters of Murdoch say it is a confrontation that had to come sooner or later – detractors say that Murdoch is out of touch and represents an industry that is unable to adapt to the times. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

I don’t know if what is happening in the US is occurring elsewhere in the world. I suspect that in any country where people have ready access to the net, the media are faced with the same challenge. One of the exceptions to the trend is in India where newspapers are as powerful and financially viable as ever because advertising revenues are significant and show no signs of abating since circulation remains strong. Of course internet access is still very limited in India in relation to the population – but it will be a while before the print media in India is faced with the sort of challenge that it is confronting in the US and other parts of the world.

9 Responses to “Are newspapers becoming obsolete?”

  1. Vivek says:

    Rana A…I totally share your fascination with news and current affairs, as you well know! I think the key challenge for newspapers is to find some way of monetizing their offerings. I believe Google Micropayments(2010) offers a potential solution.

  2. TJ says:

    Yes Vivek, I know that you do! In fact, I think you are perhaps even more informed than I am when it comes to the resources and news on the net. One of the things that this blog has done is to make me even more aware of various happenings. It is not that I seek news to post about – it just happens but in the process I sometimes examine something in greater depth as I develop a posting for the blog.

    The link that you sent is interesting. What I know is that paying for content is something that users have resisted except in niche areas so I suspect that Google’s concept would need to be a function of how cheap they make it. You will recall that the New York Times had to give up the “Times Select” feature which required subscription because there were just not enough takers.

  3. Vivek says:

    Rana A, I know exactly what you mean about “Times Select” – reminds me of the time when I had to come up with all sorts of hacks to be able to read Paul Krugman(my favourite NY Times columnist)

  4. TJ says:

    Well, I used to surf the net for Maureen Dowd’s columns and those of the late Bill Safire when “Times Select” was available only to subscribers. But I think what you and I used to do is the problem with any “pay for news” type service. The internet being what it is, one can always find it for free on some website or the other. If the cost were relatively minimal, then I can see people possibly choosing to subscribe – just to save one from the hassle of having to find free access.

  5. Peter says:

    Clearly what you get is not what you pay for nowadays, when it comes to news. However, I’m still old school in that holding a paper in my hands and reading it seems to make it more real and even more open to rational criticism. In my opinion the problem with Google News or RSS defined in the all knowing wikipedia as “a family of web feed formats from a variety of sources, blogs, news headlines both audio and video in a standard format” is that the level of editing or authenticity of those sources can be questionable. Admittedly in the past the printed media has been known to be plain lies but there are more checks and balances than what’s spouted on the web. Like you Rana, I was swayed by the habits of our father, but unlike you, it stuck.

  6. TJ says:

    Peter, there is a distinction between online news as found on the NYT website or that of the Washington Post and opinions, rumors, etc that is found on blogs or other websites with an agenda.

    The authenticity of the information at reputable news sites is no different than what you get in that website’s hard copy. So whether one reads the Washington Post paper like you do – or the online version that I do, we are looking at basically the same content. I certainly can relate to your “comfort” in holding a paper that you read – it is a transition but once one makes it, the need for that physical piece of paper becomes unimportant. At least that is what happened to me. I just love the multitude of new sources that the internet offers me – literally from all over the world. I guess it is not unlike snail mail and email – the former offers a certain “feel and comfort” but except for limited communications, email is more efficient.

    I guess you are definitely not a candidate for the Kindle!:)

  7. saira says:

    Very interesting post, Papa. I don’t dispute anything you are saying…this remains to be the biggest issue that Gannett faces. More shall be revealed, I suppose…

  8. Richard says:

    Perhaps one of the things i enjoy most about digital media over print is the ability to read the same story from different outlets and deciphering the spin that each applies. It tends to enable you to see “his side, her side” and figure out the truth. Whereas before digital media, it was somewhat more difficult and not cost effective on a story by story basis…

  9. TJ says:

    Saira, yes, it is the challenge facing Gannett and most other old line media companies. I don’t know what business model will ensure the financial viability of these media companies without eviscerating what used to be the mode of delivery of news.

    Richard, I wholly agree with you that access to a variety of opinions is one of the real pleasures of digital media. I probably scan about a dozen news sites on most days offering a variety of opinions ranging from liberal to conservative to what might be deemed almost fascist with a proclivity to see conspiracies in just about everything that happens in the US and the world.

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