Unintended Consequences

By Max Fawcett | July 16, 2007


It's no secret that the internet has exerted a
transformative influence on almost every aspect of popular culture in the 21st
century. It has changed the way music is sold and distributed, altered the way
television is viewed, and made the piracy of mainstream movies a popular
pastime. These industries, which all initially tried to fight the encroachment
of the internet, learned through sheer financial attrition that resistance
truly was futile. Eventually, each enacted a range of compensatory strategies
in an effort to work with, rather than against, the internet, and their fortunes
improved accordingly. The final frontier, so to speak, in the internet's
assault on the way people access popular culture is the printed word. The
internet has already undermined the primacy of paper in the creation and dissemination
of news and will, in the not-so-distant future, eliminate it entirely. However,
the twist is that unlike the film, television, and music industries, whose
conflict with the internet was an exercise in survival, the newspaper may
emerge as a stronger and more viable entity.

That the newspaper will use the internet's influence as an
opportunity to evolve, rather than merely survive, is far from certain. What is
certain is that the outcome is one to which we should all be paying attention. While
the public was understandably indifferent to the cries of financial anguish the
internet extracted from record companies, television executives, and film
studios, the future of the newspaper merits attention. Whereas movies,
television shows, and popular music serve popular taste, newspapers serve the
public interest. Newspapers are an important, even essential, element of a
vibrant democratic culture. Thomas Jefferson, who is rightly regarded not just
as one of the founding fathers of American democracy but of democracy itself,
observed that "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government
without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a
moment to prefer the latter."

More pragmatically, as Dr. Henry Milner observed in a 2001
paper published by the Institute on Research and Public Policy
examining the
linkages between media literacy and democratic participation,
"individuals who read newspapers, in Canada as elsewhere, are
politically more knowledgeable,"
and "the most important single aspect of maintaining media literacy is
newspaper reading." The social benefits of newspaper consumption are
highlighted in a survey conducted by youth-oriented think-tank D-Code
for the
Canadian Newspaper Association. In it, researchers noted that while 78%
of respondents
who identified themselves as regular readers voted in the last federal
election, only 56% of infrequent readers bothered to cast a ballot.
readers are also more likely to participate in other forms of
activity, be it forward emails on issues of concern, joining a
political party,
or partaking in public protests. Newspapers are, then, an important
to the health of our democracy both now and in the future. Ironically, while the internet has severely disrupted the previously
prospering cultural industries of music, film, and television, it might save
one that was otherwise doomed.

While the precise figures vary from source to source, a 10%
decline in newspaper circulation between 1990 and 2002 is a conservative assumption,
and it includes the torrent of free newspapers that have been dumped on the
public in recent years. The bottom lines of Canadian newspapers haven't fared
any better, as the past decade has witnessed a relentless onslaught of mergers,
layoffs, and downsizings, all in an effort to blunt the effect of a rapidly
shrinking number of subscribers.

Newspapers began their decline, both in terms of their
standing in the hierarchy of authority in popular culture and their readership
levels, long before Al Gore invented the internet. While circulation figures
only starting dropping in absolute terms in the early 1990s, in real terms the
decline began at least twenty years earlier. While circulation figures rose
incrementally until the early 1990s, those increases were outstripped by a
factor of magnitude by the rise in the population purchasing those newspapers,
effectively masking their decline. In reality, we're more than fifty years
removed from the newspaper's Golden Age, when the average household consumed
more than one newspaper each, per day. By 1990, that figure – "household
penetration" is the industry term – had dropped by more than half.

For a time, it appeared inevitable that the internet would deliver the final
blow to this already faltering industry. Already faced with break-even balance
sheets, publishers now had to deal with the potentially ruinous influence that the
internet promised to exert on advertising revenues. While newspapers found ways
to deal with the gentle long-term decline in subscriber rates and the resulting
decrease in revenues generated by display advertising, they had no such
solution to the influence the internet exerted on classified advertising
revenues. Classifieds, which constituted a more substantial portion of any
newspaper's overall revenues than display ads, were utterly and almost
instantly decimated by websites like Craigslist that offer far more detailed
classified advertising for free.

The internet's influence certainly wasn't limited to advertising, though.
Content wise, the internet provided easy access to important information like
stock prices, weather forecasts, sports scores, and movie listings, items that were
traditionally accessed only in newspapers. The proliferation of online pundits
and news sites threatened the monopoly on authority and opinion making that
newspapers previously enjoyed. These threats are only exacerbated by the way in
which young Canadians access news information. Overwhelmingly, young Canadians
are turning to online sources for their news needs, with far fewer sticking
with the traditional printed version. According to the Newspaper Audience
Databank, only 45 per cent of 18- to 34-year-old Canadians currently read a
newspaper every day, compared to 63 per cent in 1986. Yet, as journalist John
Naughton noted in the November 12,
2006 edition of The Observer,
newspapers have yet to respond appropriately. According to Naughton, "in any other industry, the discovery
that your potential future customers weren't interested in buying your product
would prompt an investigation into whether there was something wrong with the
product. But what one hears – still – from the newspaper industry is that
there's something wrong with the customers."

But the problem wasn't the customers, but instead the newspaper
industry's ineffective response to their changing patterns of behaviour.
Instead of embracing the opportunities presented both by the internet and the
evolving habits of their readership, journalists, publishers, and owners dug
in. As the Toronto Star's media critic Antonia Zerbisias
observed – fittingly, on her blog – "there is still much resistance to
e-journalism in these here parts. Too many journos feel we're giving away
content for free and jeopardizing our long term viability in the process. There's
a sense that it's hurting our single copy/newsstand sales." Any changes that
were made were limited to the margins, such as the introduction of boutique
blogs and the reproduction of printed content online. The intent was not to use
the internet to any detectable advantage but rather to merely satisfy the
barest of technological minimums.

Instead of using their ample resources to exploit the
opportunities presented by the internet in order to recapture their younger
readers, they flooded the market with free pseudo-papers like DOSE, helmed by
young Noah Godfrey and staffed by an equally young team of writers, in the
misguided belief that by attracting young readers to these new vehicles they'd
also be creating future readers for the "mother" papers. The failure of this
strategy, which resulted in the thousands of glittering red DOSE boxes being
repossessed in the middle of the night last summer, was both symbolic and
instructive. The industry has yet to fully recover from the deployment of this deeply
conservative strategy, one that didn't suit a technological environment in
which success is determined by the ability to lead change, not follow it.

At long last, however, it appears that those responsible for the
newspaper's future understand that it depends far more on news than paper. The
New York Times, the most respected newspaper in the world, has already stated
its intention to move completely online in as little as five years. According
to publisher, owner, and chairman Arthur Sulzberger, "I really don't care
whether we'll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don't
care either." While Sulzberger's enthusiasm isn't necessarily shared by
Canadian publishers yet, they still face the same mandatory transition from
paper to pixels as Sulzberger and their ability to negotiate it will determine
their long term success and failure.

If they're wise, they will, like Sulzberger, view the internet as
an opportunity upon which to act rather than a challenge to be managed. The
biggest drag on a given newspaper's profitability has always been the paper
itself and everything that goes into printing, processing, and distributing a
physical copy of a newspaper. Freed of the previously inescapable inefficiencies
of paper, newspapers will be able to redirect a significant portion of their
budget towards content. This, and not free papers like DOSE, youth-oriented
columns and columnists, or flashy USA
Today-style graphical treatments, is the future of the newspaper.

That future looks bright for the first time in a long time. While the
internet has eliminated the monopoly that newspapers previously enjoyed on the
formation and expression of leading opinions, it has in no way diminished the
demand for those opinions. If anything, the growing cacophony of voices on the
internet, be they in the form of blogs, newsgroups, social networking tools, or
other as yet unseen incarnations of internet technology, will create a premium
for the intellectual harmony that newspapers have, and still can, provide. As The New York Times's Sulzberger
observes, "we are
curators, curators of news. People don't click onto the New York Times to read
blogs. They want reliable news that they can trust." That trust factor,
properly cultivated, may make properly expressed opinions and
accurate news reportage more valuable than they have ever been before.

Similarly, freedom from the press – the printing press, that is –
should end the decades-old trend of newspapers cutting editorial staff, be it
local beat reporters, foreign desks, or opinion columnists. With the emphasis
on delivering content instead of copies, newspapers intent on competing will
have no choice but to increase the range of voices, the depth of their
contributions, and the frequency of their filings. Likewise, digitally located
content will not be constrained by the limitations of broadsheet paper,
allowing for longer pieces, more in-depth reportage, and a general increase in
the quality, and quantity, of news coverage.

Perhaps most importantly, the internet will provide journalists
with tools that could, if properly exercised, allow them to improve the quality
of their work. The most powerful among these new tools is the internet's capacity
for interactivity, one that promises to significantly reduce the distance between
author and audience. From interactive commentary sections to email feedback and
regular online chats, the internet allows readers to actively engage the news
and those who report it, rather than passively absorbing it as they have in the
past. Similarly, the internet allows journalists to reference a much wider
range of external material than the printed newspaper allows. From related
documents and source materials to sound and video clips, the internet allows
journalists to create more textured and effectively referenced material. The
internet presents a remarkable opportunity for journalists, both to improve the
quality of both their work and their relationship with their readership.

If the vitality of a democracy depends on the quality of its
publicly available and accessible information, then the internet may prove to
be the most important development in democracy's relatively short history since
the extension of the voting franchise. While people have been turning away from
newspapers over the past thirty-five years and young people seemed poised to
leave them behind entirely, the internet has provided an important and entirely
unexpected opportunity, both for the reinvention of its form and a
revitalization of its influence.

Toronto, July 16, 2007 – 1,992 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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