It has roughly been two decades now since Newspapers began their descent. This talk has pervaded the hypothetical in Canada; the government has published a report that speculates on what the democracy in Canada might look like in a post-newspaper world. Britain now has approximately 200 fewer regional and local newspapers than it had in 2005. In the United States the picture is analogous. Lately a scenario once inconceivable has become grimly probable.
Throughout the United States, the weekly print circulation has fallen from almost 60 million throughout 1994 to 35 million for combined print and internet circulation. Horrible as it had been, things deteriorated a lot lately. While new digital subscriptions at The Washington Post and The New York Times have surged since the 2016 election, digital subscriptions and advertisement sales have not compensated for the industry-wide deterioration of print ads. And on the digital subscription model, local newspapers across the country have not been nearly as successful as the Post and Times. Once-promising digital-first news sites like BuzzFeed and Vice have lately missed financial objectives and Mashable, valued at around $250 million in March 2016, ended up selling for under $50 million.
And what, then? Social media platforms make information sharing omnipresent and non-stop, but where will that information come from in the first place when all the reporters are let go? What happens when the newspaper model—what the government commissioned report published by the Public Policy Forum called “the model of journalistic ‘boots on the ground’ backed up by a second peloton in the office that upholds such holy standards as verification and balance”—is no longer generating that content at all?
According to a report, Canadian newspapers lost three-quarters of a billion dollars annually of reliable classified advertising revenue to eBay and Craigslist. And from there, slice by slice, the list of promotional losses goes on: “Why would the car enthusiast turn to the automotive section of the newspaper when there are innumerable specialty websites with a richer content? What’s the allure of an entertainment section of a paper in a world of Rotten Tomatoes, Flixster and IMDb and a celebrity gossip sites online industry? How well will the food segment compete with other digital culinary resources like Epicurious, Yummly etc.?
The role of the news media as the last defensive system of democracy was brought to light by the many snarling attempts by President Donald Trump to disparage newspapers in both Canada and the U.S., such as labelling the “failing” Times and the Post as “fake news.” Combine this common American antagonism to newspapers with the prediction of fatal haemorrhage in ads and you are potentially having a forecast of imminent death.
Perhaps we need a paradigm shift for newspapers in the face of considerably reduced resources; maybe we cannot cover every meeting and try to cover every bit of news. Perhaps we need to aim higher and generate more original and exclusive investigative reporting — which may take longer but will have more lasting effect. Reader polls indicate that people trust the investigative reporting more than anything else, and it makes little sense to cut back on these main research. The best stories aren’t coming to you after all: you have to go and find them.