Where the future of journalism lies

A former Globe & Mail editor argues that newspapers have forgotten what they want from readers

Justin Tang/CP

Justin Tang/CP

Many commentators bemoaned the loss of The Independent newspaper, and Independent on Sunday, last week in Britain. The print editions of these quality titles will disappear by the end of March. The Independent joins newspapers in Montreal, Guelph and many American cities in evaporating from the street into cyberspace: But they publish still. Why then the talk of “loss”?

At the height of its circulation in 1990, The Independent sold 423,000 copies, reaching a million-plus readers daily. Today, it sells only 40,700 print copies, but its readership online is approaching three million unique readers daily. Its digital readership has grown by 33 per cent in the last year, according to owner Ergeny Lebedev, and will soon surpass 70 million monthly.

Where is the “loss” here in abandoning print? Where is the loss in abandoning clumsy, expensive 19th-century technology in paper, ink, printing and distribution for clean and cheap transmission? Abandoning print relieves The Independent of enormous costs that have nothing to do with the production of good journalism. Indeed, Lebedev says new financial room on a profitable Independent website will fund new bureaus in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, as well as expansions in the U.S.

The least troubling source of angst in newsrooms these days should be the embrace of much larger audiences at much less cost through digital means and, when the numbers tip to red on the presses, the happy abandonment of print—which can help the bottom line and environment, too.

More troubling by far is the response of some media owners to the persistent decline of revenue in print editions. (For example, Postmedia’s ad revenues in Canada fell 17.9 per cent in the year ending Aug. 31, 2015, and circulation revenue declined five per cent, reflecting a slump of 10 per cent in circulation volume. Even digital revenue declined by 1.5 per cent.)

These revenue declines are exacerbated in Postmedia’s case by debts exceeding $682 million (2015), and interest charges approaching $70 million a year. Loading debt onto declining print revenue streams creates added financial pressures that strip newsrooms of their essential assets: journalists.

In Postmedia’s case, it has led to the collapse of competing newsrooms across the country into shrunken mongrels, whose major editorial positions are dictated by the CEO in Toronto—an enormous intrusion into the diversity and character of the country itself. There is ample room for angst here, but it is less structural than intentional in the case of Postmedia. Journalism is as much the victim of destructive management decisions in many newsrooms as it is of changing markets.

Which comes to the core: The fundamental challenge for journalism arises not from the prospect of digital distribution only, or even the presence of rogue publishers for a time. It arises from journalism’s own value proposition in a changing world.

When I was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail through the 1990s, our mantra read: “We are not in the business of selling newspapers; we are in the business of buying time.” We were bidding for the time of very busy readers, and the price of their time was rising. It was our job to increase the value of our content so these readers would pay more, and spend more time with us—despite their time-poverty.

Readers now are even more time-stressed and presented with far more reading options online. Their definition of utility in reading is changing, too. The traditional newspaper defined “news” largely as “what went wrong yesterday.” In a world where most capable people are challenged to come up with solutions to what goes wrong, and to forecast the dangers and opportunities rushing to us from ahead, “what went wrong yesterday” doesn’t buy much time.

In response, many newspapers have resorted to lists—or listicles—as part of a big push to self-help content, mimicking airport bookstores. Dealing with retirement finances is the most suffocating of this claustrophobic species. And it does nothing to meet the basic test of buying time: Proprietary content.

You cannot buy time with content that is pervasive and free. If you want to wrestle 20 minutes of reading daily from busy people, you must offer a rare combination of unique, useful and engaging content unavailable easily elsewhere. In sum, you have to be compellingly distinctive, even odd.

The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and New York Times do it, and profit from ballooning global readership online. Few newspapers in Canada could charge a farthing.

Through subsidies, does the government have role in keeping 19th-century printing technology on the streets, supervising management suites that blunder in running newspapers, or propping up commodity news of little interest to readers? Not.

  • Our best newspapers should be preparing assiduously for the day they abandon the heavy chains of print to embrace much larger audiences for profit online.
  • Those grieving for the likes of Postmedia’s management should harbour their resources for the days those properties come back on the block.
  • And essentially, journalists must up their game in bidding for readers’ time.

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