The endangering of newspapers

One of the questions I pose to my participants in my corporate personal branding workshops is about their reading habits. Or, content consumption habits, broadly, since reading is too narrow when it comes to content input, overall.

If the workshop is for employee advocacy, the participants tend to be younger and when I ask how many people read a newspaper every day, very few people raise their hands. The participants’ average age tends to be on the higher side for CXO-level (or the management team) personal branding workshops and here, a lot more people raise their hands.

The context for this question in a personal branding workshop is around keeping oneself abreast of what is happening in their chosen field and 2-3 related layers above that. For instance, if your space is marketing, knowing about what’s happening in the economy is essential too. As we move out of school, we tend to assume that the need to be on top of general knowledge no more exists and stop going after such sources. But, we don’t build content pipelines to be on top of our own chosen areas either, leaving that to serendipity and chance.

The utility value of newspapers

There seems to be a broad trend when it comes the utility value of newspapers – it seems to be diminishing day by day.

I was recently asked in a LinkedIn comment (the ensuing discussion from a post where I had a perspective on ad campaign that I found in the newspaper) why I bother tracking a medium that is clearly outdated and so few younger people would ever encounter.

For both linear TV and print newspapers, while they still have the numbers, they are in the process of being actively disintermediated.

The newspaper habit

Back when I was in the senior secondary classes, we were told that it was very important to read The Hindu every day and also Competition Success Review (the magazine) so that we are up-to-date on ‘current affairs’. Competition Success Review still exists, by the way, so I assume students are still being given that kind of an advice even today.

When I got into corporate communications and PR for a career, the need to track newspapers became part of my profession.

Today, I still skim through 10+ English newspapers (India and the world) and 5 Tamil newspapers on a daily basis. I do not read deeply more than 2-3 newspapers of these, but only skim on the headlines page-to-page so that I store bits of information that I can retrieve at a later time when needed.

I’m reasonably sure this habit of mine is an anomaly in the age of smartphones.

Newspapers vs. other sources of news

The question then is this: in an age when ‘news’ is available on-demand, throughout the day, whenever we need it, what utility value does it serve to know what happened in the world in the last 24 hours via a newspaper?

There’s even a famous quip by Jerry Seinfeld on that: “It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper“.

I presume those who do not buy or read a print newspaper may have other sources of information – the internet, WhatsApp, TV etc. But they don’t serve the same function that a newspaper does.

For one, a newspaper does not assume that you are interested in only certain topics and try to serve you those. Of course, if you are interested only in sports, you can go straight to the last few pages of the newspaper and read them, while ignoring the rest.

On the internet, even the digital version of a newspaper (not the e-paper version) is vastly different in that while it shows headlines, to know what it is about, you need to actively click on each, read, go back and so on. It feels cumbersome and there are tons of distractions too littered everywhere.

On WhatsApp or social media, ‘news’ gets even more narrow. Your contacts or Groups on WhatsApp tend to share information that appeals to them, not you. Social media is a different rabbit-hole altogether – there is absolutely no plan or theme on what of news you may encounter.

These sources also tend to push you towards specific biases. Biases exist in/for newspapers too, but given that a LOT of people contribute to the newspapers, as a format, they are able to provide an opportunity to multiple voices across the ideological spectrum. I see this every single day in the newspapers I track – not only in how specific news pieces are framed from paper to paper, but also conflicting opinions about the same news in the same newspaper. It helps me look beyond my biases and force myself to read counterpoints to what I may think is a good point of view.

The original intent of newspapers

So, the original intent of a newspaper—what happened in the world in the last 24 hours—has not been replicated convincingly or compellingly in another medium besides the printed newspaper (or its e-paper version).

The diminishing utility value of a newspaper has probably less to do with the format and more to do with the reduced interest in wanting to know what happened in the world in the last 24 hours. That’s a direct result of the internet always being there for us, on-demand. So, we may be assuming, “Everything that needs to be known is online anyway. I will figure it when needed”.

But that assumption leads to not making a habit of knowing what is happening around us (or in the world in the last 24 hours). The less we do, the more we depend on the serendipity of social media or social networking to make us aware.

Active accumulation of broader knowledge vs. specific seeking of most relevant knowledge, in essence.

Newspapers vs. linear TV and OTT

The newspaper, as an entity, shares close similarities with both linear TV and OTT!

Like linear TV, newspapers offer linear reading. You cannot demand only specific things from both linear TV and newspapers – they offer what they have and you manage your time around what interests you.

Also, both linear TV and newspapers are media belonging to the appointment era. You need to make time in your day to consume content from both – newspapers in the morning, and TV, at times when you can afford to make time for specific news segments.

And, beyond that day, the value of both cease to exist.

From a payment model, newspapers and OTTs are very similar. We do not pay for specific, individual titles (that’s pay-per-view) – we pay for the availability of a LOT of pieces of content that we may not ever be able to see fully.

We probably view about 1-2% of the content available in a Netflix or Prime Video, but we pay a standard monthly fee every month anyway. Just like we read barely 5% of a newspaper’s articles fully (and merely skim the headlines of the rest), but still pay a flat monthly fee.

Also, both OTTs and newspapers offer a combination of content they aggregate and produce on their own – Netflix, for instance, produces a lot of its own content and also buys content from other producers, while newspapers produce much of their own content while also syndicating a lot of content from other publications.

Is there a way out?

So, what is the way out for newspapers? If they are being perceived as going out of date in a world of always-on, on-demand knowledge and information, how could they evolve?

They have been trying a lot of models and some have been successful, like the one by The New York Times. The Times has been able to monetize specific streams too, like the Cooking/Food sections, as separate apps, but that goes back to moving away from broader knowledge to picking just one stream that interests us. As a business model to sustain the whole organization of the news media, it sure helps, but it doesn’t help with the original purpose of newspapers.

The print newspaper’s business model is built around advertising, something that hasn’t transplanted adequately to the digital media, at least for newspaper companies. A print ad is hardly equal to a digital ad in terms of the cost or the association/perception. The print advertising sustains the entire business of print newspapers and helps keep the cover price very low so that they could be purchased everyday.

But when the basic question itself is ‘Why bother reading a newspaper everyday when the internet is full of free news that I can search and read whenever I want to?‘, the entire model of the newspaper comes crumbling down.

E-papers merely transplanted the print newspaper to a direct digital equivalent and given multiple screen sizes, and increased use of smaller ones (mobile phones), that hasn’t proven itself to be all that useful either.

Merely trying to solve for newer formats of transplanting the newspaper to digital media is ignoring the core purpose of the newspaper and trying to force-fit bits and pieces of the newspaper’s content into available digital streams.

I do not have any suggestions for what newspapers should be doing to get back in the game – I really don’t know or cannot figure out what more they could do. I have seen and understood everything they are doing, the world over, but nothing seems like a good fit.

I find enormous value in the format (especially the e-paper version), but I also am acutely aware that I’m an anomaly. The only thing I realize that is mere format-based thinking is not the solution to reviving interest in newspapers (if at all). The solution probably lies in positioning the need for newspapers’ power to offer ‘general knowledge’ and making that offering more compelling to present-day audiences (readers!). This goes against the fact that they seem completely and misleadingly sold on the internet’s value to offer the same and also are under the impression that they have many other sources to know what’s happening around them even though they seem largely unpredictable.



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