The death of print

I took no pleasure in seeing the 159-year-old Border Watch newspaper close its doors earlier this month.

As one of the fortunate few who started their writing careers in regional newsrooms, there are lots of nostalgic memories of the print era: the clatter of Remington typewriters, the plumes of cigarette smoke rising from ashtrays, the mumbles of crusty compositors slicing up waxed galleys with scalpels and the whirr of the Goss press as it spat out a week’s work in 10 point Times Roman on a kilometre of newsprint.

We were proud of our profession, a brotherhood and sisterhood that was spread from London’s Fleet Street to Manhattan’s Park Row, playing a small part in an industrial process of knowledge creation and dissemination dating back to the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press.

The announcement about the demise of Mt Gambier’s local rag came hot on the heels of the closure of 100 NewsCorp regional publications during the COVID-19 lockdown – some disappearing forever, and others, such as the SA Messenger stable reappearing in digital form only. Many of Fairfax’s rural and regional stable are also closing.

It is the sad but predictable end of an era that has been bearing down on us like a locomotive since Facebook and Google, Instagram and Twitter assumed control of communication globally.

But while it is easy to point the finger at these digital behemoths for the demise of a central pillar of community democracy, there are others to blame.

Misguided media

As Crikey editor Eric Beecher pointed out in a seminal article on the subject in The Monthly in 2013, newspaper proprietors and Board directors lived in a blissful state of denial, self-assured that the extraordinary revenue from classified real estate, car and job advertising would continue forever. As realestate.com, domain.com, seek.com and carsales.com. have shown, they were sadly misguided.

Beecher said that once readers could access this national market place, as well as free commoditised information – “weather, property listings, transactions, sharemarket prices, dating opportunities, recipes and a constant stream of clickbait celebrity, lifestyle and oddball stories” – there was no reason to purchase a newspaper just for news.

“The internet…is the first mass medium in history with almost no barriers to entry and practically unlimited content-carrying capacity. These two factors have converged to create millions of websites and blogs, and billions of web pages, resulting in the collapse of online advertising rates for all but highly specialist or unique websites. And that has created another dilemma you won’t read about in the press – the commodification of news. There’s news everywhere on the internet, most of it free, so why would readers pay for an old-style, all-purpose newspaper bundle on a website when they can access content that is often deeper and richer on niche sites. The online world provides a wonderful new platform for journalism, bringing the reader inside the tent and, to the dismay of old-school media barons, removing the power of the gatekeepers to use (and abuse) their media to influence society,” Beecher writes.

Newspapers didn’t ever survive on the few shekels shelled out by the reader for each edition: it was advertising that paid the bills. The sale of what was essentially a few square centimetres of low cost white space on a newspaper page, for a high price was a brilliant business model.

But if there are no readers then it is hard to prove to businesses that their advertising is being seen and remembered and acted upon.

Digital marketing: an algorithm for success

Since Beecher’s article, we have seen an extraordinary growth in a sophisticated digital marketing industry that is strategic, targeted and measurable – everything newspapers weren’t.

It’s a pivot (to use the new lexicon) that brand communications agencies like ours have adapted to enthusiastically. We’ve spent decades trying to estimate the potential coverage of a media release pitched to a newspaper journalist who might or might not be having a good day, or the value of a 3×4 advertisement on page 12 of the Monday newspaper.

Now using a carefully curated recipe of content and advertising and channeling it through Facebook, Google, Instagram and Twitter, we can assure our clients that their digital marketing spend will be seen by the very eyeballs they seek to engage. Want to excite 25-year-old Chardonnay drinkers on Sydney’s North Shore? Certainly. Like to grab the attention of 40 something young Dads in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs? No problems.

Of course there is a dumbing down of our news and content. As Beecher points out Google and Facebook’s algorithms have prioritised the sensational over the informative.

But the masses have voted with their sliding and swiping fingertips to read and enjoy the entertainment that a glass screen offers rather than getting their fingers dirty with ink.

Should we be worried about what many journalists warn is the demise of democracy? Or is this just intellectual snobbery?

The average Tom, Dick and Harriet don’t look for a newspaper on their front lawn anymore. They might give the front page a cursory glance while waiting for their soy latte at the local café, but pay a dollar for it? No way.

It seems that the only people who still subscribe are those over 60s and 70s who like to see who’s been despatched recently (the hatching and matching is now advertised on Facebook not the classifieds).

The global media transformation

The move from trees and ink to a digital screen is a global transformation that is not going to stop because journos are out of work. Free to air TV is rapidly being supplanted by streaming services such as Netflix, Stan, Apple and Prime, yet is anyone crying that we don’t have to watch Farmer Wants a Wife if we don’t want to? Half billion dollar losses by the major networks prove that these mediums are also under threat.

Radio – for a long time the healthy survivor – is now also battling as consumers curate their own Spotify music and select podcasts based on their personal interests rather than the rantings of shock jocks and the inanity of talkback callers. With net profit down by more than 80 per cent on some radio networks, the signs don’t look good for regional and local content development and news coverage.

Can we do without the endlessly earnest advice of political analysts and social critics. Apparently we can? But that’s not to say we don’t still seek out well researched, accredited commentary on our own terms through channels such as The Conversation, The Guardian, the ABC and…for balance…Sky.

There are of course ways for the old print media to re-birth itself – not just survive but grow through quality content. Some regional newspapers are doing this, as are the more creative urban mastheads. Just look at the New York Times which has disrupted the old advertising model by creating engaging worthwhile content.

“The main goal isn’t simply to maximize revenue from advertising—the strategy that keeps the lights on and the content free at upstarts like the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Vox. It’s to transform the Times’ digital subscriptions into the main engine of a billion-dollar business, one that could pay to put reporters on the ground in 174 countries even if (OK, when) the printing presses stop forever. To hit that mark, the Times is embarking on an ambitious plan inspired by the strategies of Netflix, Spotify, and HBO: invest heavily in a core offering (which, for the Times, is journalism) while continuously adding new online services and features (from personalized fitness advice and interactive newsbots to virtual reality films) so that a subscription becomes indispensable to the lives of its existing subscribers and more attractive to future ones. “We think that there are many, many, many, many people—millions of people all around the world—who want what The New York Times offers,” says Dean Baquet, the Times’ executive editor. “And we believe that if we get those people, they will pay, and they will pay greatly.”

Increasingly, consumers are also attracted to high-quality video, photographic and written content that businesses and organisations produce and distribute themselves, creating their own strategic and targeted media networks. This is a huge breakthrough for not for profits who could never afford advertising or PR and a significant bottom-line booster for hard-pressed businesses.

Embracing change

When I think back to our strategy to create an integrated brand communication in the 1990s, we were bravely swimming against the tide. Advertising agencies owned the media realm and profited handsomely from their sharp ideas and big distribution budgets. We wanted to deliver something different – a balanced approach to communication that incorporated a range of channels. We seized upon the advent of digital marketing as a way to help our clients compete with the big media networks and engage their clients in a more personal and targeted way.

We saw what was about to happen and we changed for our clients and our stakeholders.

Businesses who are unwilling to read the tea leaves of change and assume things will always be comfortingly as they were will certainly disappear, and an economic challenge like we are seeing now will simply accelerate that change. According to a recent IPSOS report the shift towards online advertising will continue and its share of total media spend will accelerate with the COVID-19-related economic crisis.

The report also states that 68 per cent of SMEs and 87 per cent of large businesses still have marketing-related spending budgeted for the next six months, and will certainly deploy it as social distancing restrictions decline.

Despite the fact that I’ll probably be driving an electric car in a few years time, charging it with my own solar panels and eating plant based fillet steaks, I have a perverse nostalgic dream that I will always be able to rustle open The Weekend Australian over a long black and marmalade on toast on Saturday mornings. Rupert Murdoch’s love child loses a reputed $20 million a year but he persists in providing this public news service, regardless.

But even that is subject to the vagaries of this old-fashioned industrial model. Last week the Review section wasn’t inserted in The Weekend Australian I picked up. I checked a dozen others and same result. The newsagent shrugged and raised her eyes to the ceiling.

That’s something that would never happen online.

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