The Future of News – Peak Journalism

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   "Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism." Clay Shirky

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Global Entertainment and Media Outlook (2010 to 2014) another milestone is about to be passed with the internet poised to overtake newspapers as the second-largest U.S. advertising medium by revenue behind television. Contrast that with some bleak but revealing figures from the OECD report on The Evolution Of News And The Internet, which tells us that since 2007 the UK has seen one of the heaviest global newspaper circulation declines at 25%, second only to the US at 30%.

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The growth of the global newspaper market, says the report, slowed progressively from 2004 to almost nothing in 2007 and then contracted from 2008 in spite of growth in the developing world. Taking account of non-OECD countries and the positive effects of the economic recovery, the case for the ‘death of the newspaper’ is not supported by the data, but the challenge faced by newspaper publishers is put into sharp focus by the conclusion that whilst internet traffic to online news sites has grown rapidly, the online revenues of newspapers were in general “miniscule in comparison to total revenues and online revenues of other digital content industries”, with online advertising accounting for 4% of total revenues in 2009.

The crux of the issue for publishers is that despite building large online audiences, for every online user they derive a fraction of the revenue than is made for every reader of a print newspaper. A big challenge when the share of people who only read news online is likely to show rapid growth, leading to a “real concern is that a significant proportion of young people are not reading conventional news at all”.

But whilst the report concludes that publishers have yet to discover the business model that can finance in-depth independent news production (accepting Shirky’s argument that this often means a fight to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies), it’s a shame that it doesn’t make more of the experimentation-at-scale that is taking place in the news industry. Not least the wholly divergent strategies exemplified by the News Corp closed paywall and The Guardian Open Platform, the latter of which is leading to some interesting formatting experiments with news content by outside developers using the Guardian’s Content API. Meanwhile the New York Times is building a public beta testing site to allow it to experiment in public with new ideas and applications before deciding whether they deserve to go live on the main site.

The OECD report is keen to highlight the important role that news creation and distribution plays in democratic societies. Its evolution, it says, is a matter of public interest. So, I would argue, is the outcome of the strategies that are being played out right now.

Reading reports like this, and particularly about employment losses in the newspaper industry, makes me wonder whether (as Russell once speculated about advertising), whilst we have undoubtedly yet to see the high point in the volume of news produced and consumed on a daily basis, we may have reached what you might call ‘Peak Journalism‘ – that is the point in time that has seen the maximum output produced by professional journalists – those that get paid a salary to do what we used to know as traditional journalism. I’m inclined to agree with the sentiment expressed in this excellent piece by Martin Moore, that the future of news is not so bleak, but it is not so rosy either. 

An abridged version of this post is also up on The Wall blog.

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