By Kwami Ahiabenu II
Across the globe, owners, managers and editors are kept awake over the uncertain future of their industry. Some analysts paint a gloomy picture of the newspaper industry, saying it will end up in the grave yard; pushed to an early death by a number of factors which includes access to “free news” online and inherently very reduced hardcopy sales.
Newspapers were born in 59 B.C. when Acta Diurna was published in Rome. Since then, there is ample evidence about the significant role they play in our societies generally and as a pillar of democracy in particular. In recent times, there is a major revolution in the media landscape fueled largely by the widespread and ubiquitous availability of new digital technologies. Currently over 50% of the world’s total population are unique mobile phone users sending over 8.7 trillion SMS messages annually with other applications such as WhatsApp, which is very popular in Ghana, recording over 50 billion messages daily culminating in an annual total of 18.3 trillion messages exchanged. A figure that far surpasses traditional SMS.
All these new developments have no doubt shaken the very foundation of newspapers, leading to a moot question: are newspapers going to die?
In many parts of the world newspapers sales are really starting to record a decline due to a number of reasons; the rise of the electronic media, declining revenue due to loss of advertising, stiff competition from online outlets, increasing costs of production especially cost of newsprint, high costs of distribution, rapid fall in circulation, advent of new digital technologies which are making newspapers obsolete in their present format.
In Ghana though newspapers are not declining, they are not experiencing any major growth or expansion. There is no empirical data to support this assertion, however anecdotal evidence point to the fact that over time newspapers in Ghana have not grown in terms of new entrants to the market nor have existing ones undertaken any major expansion. Simply put no body is rushing to set up a newspaper in Ghana these days, the movement is towards establishment of radio or TV stations.
In a recent count, there are a little over 40 active newspapers in Ghana today. Most of them weekly, with specialised ones focusing on issues such as business, sports and lifestyle etc. There is no mainstream Sunday newspaper though a number of papers come out on Saturdays. Over all readership rates and subscriptions are drastically plummeting in Ghana not only due to the fact that audiences can get news for free from online sources but also because content from newspapers are distributed by radio and TV as well.
ARE NEWSPAPERS FOREVER?
One important factor ensuring that newspaper stand the test of time is that they have significant brand value, which means that when they move their products online, they record significant online followings. One will argue that in Ghana, lack of reliable internet access coupled with an entrenched culture of doing things non-electronically means, newspapers are still a preferred news source. An interesting challenge for the health of newspapers, does not only come from new digital technologies but from the plain old radio. The rapid development of radio stations cannot be discounted in the discourse about the survival of newspapers since they are eroding its influence. Newspapers beyond their news value, are also an important information source for happenings in the society including advertisement of goods and services which audiences consider valuable, therefore for some time to come in Ghana, newspapers are going to continue to be relevant.
Furthermore, journalists and their newspapers carry some amount of weight in terms of credibility and authority, therefore unless a tangible replacement is found, newspapers are not going to die overnight.
ODDS ARE STACKED AGAINST NEWSPAPERS
Revenue from newspapers both in terms of circulations and advertising are dropping. Largely being eaten into by new forms of online news distribution. Moreover, some advertisers do not see the value of putting ads in the newspapers since they have other channels of pushing out their brands. Future generation especially the youth simply do not see newspapers as news source, they will not buy a copy, let alone read one online since they consume news from social media outlets.
According to Pew Research Centre () in USA, ad revenues continued to fall but gains in digital ad revenue are failing to make up for falls in print ad revenue. This is an important warning sign for newspapers they cannot expect to recoup shortfalls in ad revenue by simply migrating online since there is no guarantee setting up an online news channel will perform in terms of revenue inflows.
Formerly a typical news reader will have to wait for the newspaper to be delivered in order for them to access news, currently there are a thousand and one online news sources, simply put, you do not need a newspaper to read the news, you can consume news via tablets, phones, computers or some other devices. Journalists typically are not expected to be experts on subject matter they write about but their key ability to serve as middlemen by speaking to experts and relaying it to their audiences, however, due to growth in online information, users can directly access such experts without journalists mediating. Therefore newspapers in their traditional role as key middleman is now being eroded rapidly. Nonetheless one can still argue that newspapers can transform to play a curation role where they connect consumers to as many direct news sources as possible directly playing minimum middleman.
To survive, newspapers must undertake a significant transformation by not only publishing online but generating online news products which their audiences are hungry for. Newspapers must stop burying their heads in the sand, since the dire question becomes 'when will newspaper die' not ' if newspapers will die' looms.
However, there are some strategies that newspaper can pursue in order to arrest this development while at the same time working to become relevant, sustainable and profitable. A good start is to let go age old tested newspaper traditions which are still very critical their operations and plot a new path of change. This can be accomplished by putting in place written change strategies, which must be discussed with all newsroom members in order to ensure their buy-in and smooth implementation. Such strategy should focus on what needs to be changed, how the change process will be rolled out and mitigation of change fallout. News room culture, roles and responsibilities of each member, for example, journalists who were traditionally writing for newspaper, now have to learn to become multimedia journalists with different skills set.
Newspapers have to learn new story telling techniques which can ensure the content they serve invariably to their online audience reflect what their audiences want, and in the manner they want to consume it. Monetisation of content online and across new digital channels of distribution is critical, this calls for deployment of new mechanisms of revenue generation by driving to market high value online content and apps centered on mobile phone users who are growing by the day.
****As part of its Future of News Event in August, Penplusbytes, a leader in new media & innovations; tech & good governance, and mining, oil & Gas, is pleased to release a series of future of news articles. In the second of this series, we take a look at “Death of Newspaper- Myth or Reality.”
Watch out for next article in series: “Beyond news applications, what products can newsrooms offer.”
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