“Only a newspaper can put the same thought at the same time before a thousand readers…So hardly any democratic association can carry on without a newspaper.”
In 1835, it already became evident to Alexis de Tocqueville, author of this quotation, that print media had, and would probably continue to have a central part to play in democratic countries. In our current digital age, print media has been increasingly transformed into digital media, allowing for news to reach more people, more quickly and, for the most part, for free. This transformation, however, comes at a price: the survival of traditional print media.
The decline of traditional print media
According to a 2015 report by the Brookings Institution, the number of newspapers per one hundred million people has fallen from 1,200 in 1945 to 400 in 2014. The number of newspaper journalists also decreased from 43,000 in 1978 to 33,000 in 2015. Recently, the 24-year old Pittsburgh Tribune-Review terminated its print edition and laid off 106 staff members; the 121-year old Tampa Tribune was bought by a local rival and shut down. Both of these examples reflect the dwindling prevalence of traditional media, which is likely related to falling advertisement revenues (which saw its biggest drop in 2015, since 2009) and decreasing circulation (which decreased by 7% between 2014 and 2015.) This declining trend has led Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University (NYU), to deem the financial instability of print media, “the number one unsolved problem in journalism.”
The decline of print media is troubling for several reasons. Historically, and to this day, print media is the principal medium for discovering new news stories and conducting serious investigative work. From the New York Times’ Pentagon Papers investigation in 1971, to the 2002 Boston Globe’s Spotlight, and the 2016 Panama Papers revelation, newspapers’ investigative work have had broad implications, holding politicians, clerics, celebrities and elites accountable for their actions. According to several studies, traditional media has also contributed to increased political participation and social improvements such as MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” positive influence on reduced teenage pregnancies. In a 2014 study, the termination of local newspapers proved to have a negative impact on local civic engagement and political information. The authors conclude that “ultimately, if we desire healthy and productive democratic communities, then the provisioning of local news — which helps tie citizens to each other and their communities — must continue.” A decrease in the availability of local and national newspapers might, thus, affect democracies in the sense of reducing political and civic engagement and weakening accountability.
Emergence of new media companies
Nevertheless, several journalists and scholars see the emergence of new media companies such as Vox, Mashable, and Buzzfeed as the future of media. Several indicators appear to confirm this speculation. For example, in terms of news access, mobile news readership increased by close to 20% between 2013 and 2016 and is forecasted to represent the biggest share of news consumption in the near future. Digital revenues have also risen sharply as spending increased by 20% in 2015 to about $60 billion in 2016. Total advertisement revenue has also been estimated at $26.8 billion in 2016. Additionally, new media companies have benefitted from generous venture investments. In 2015, Vox received $200 million in funding from NBC Universal, and Buzzfeed generated at least $100 million in revenue in 2014, as well as raising $200 million from NBC.
Such emerging media companies have also been at the forefront of innovative media content and revenue strategies. Verifeye and Newsflare are two companies whose services allow citizens to upload newsworthy videos with remuneration. Blendle is a Dutch company that allows readers to buy paid news articles by the unit, generally not more than 25 cents, and with a refund option. Buzzfeed created its own investigative team, which, although remains limited in terms of funds and revenue, has been recognized for its work. These ingenious products are revolutionizing the ways individuals consume and pay for information.
Nonetheless, there are still reasons for concern. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, up to 65% of annual digital ad revenue from all media companies is “swallowed up” by just five non-media companies (Facebook, Google, Twitter, Yahoo, and Verizon), up from 55% in 2014. This financial success results from the imbalance of power between news aggregators and media companies, as the popularity of the news aggregators tends to give the media companies greater influence. Many print newspapers, such as Axel Springer’s Bild, have tried to withdraw their content from news aggregators such as Google or Facebook. Germany’s largest news publisher, Axel Springer SE, attempted this in 2010, but had to get back in the fold after only two weeks because the publisher’s online traffic plummeted and generated incalculable losses. The power being exercised by some news aggregators has been increasingly questioned in the wake of the U.S. presidential election and the fake news controversies; however, news aggregators deny responsibility and refuse to be held accountable.
Overall, the future of traditional print media looks grim. Due to the important role this media plays in democratic countries, those governments have a responsibility to address its decline. Julia Cage’s book, Saving the Media, lays out possible courses of action for governments to pursue. She calls upon governments to change the legal framework of media companies and allow for the following: a non-profit media organization form that would rely on the investments of any surplus back into the company; restrictions on shareholders ability to withdraw from the company; and a tax deduction on private contributions. Cage’s proposals combine elements from both public companies and nonprofit foundations, allowing for citizen participation in media organizations, as well as assisting in the financial sustainability of the sector. Several countries, such as Norway and Iceland, have already implemented a different – albeit efficient – system that heavily relies on government subsidies. Cage’s solution, however, enables media companies to benefit from indirect subsidies in the form of tax-reduced citizens’ donations, which guarantees the separation between politics and media.
In the end, it remains to be seen if governments in democratic countries will take action, and whether we may witness the death of traditional print media and the triumph of digital media in the West. Although the decline of traditional print media is regrettable, digital media companies are continuously innovating and may very well come up with new models of news consumption.