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Are newspapers in danger of extinction?

Byline: Iman Kurdi

This morning I bought a newspaper. In fact, I bought not one but two and then made way to a cafe and read them at leisure. Once upon a time this would not have been newsworthy; it would have been a daily occurrence, but no more. These days I normally read papers online. But this morning my Internet connection was down and so I was forced to revert to good old-fashioned print to get the news.

The first problem I faced was deciding which paper to buy. Online I read about a dozen papers. Well not quite. I don't actually read them; I check them out. I glance through the headlines and flick through a dozen or so news sources, reading articles that grab my interest. But that is free and all available at the touch of a button, whereas with the print edition I actually had to buy them.

Eventually I made my choices and settled down to read them. I had forgotten what a pleasure it is! Moreover, I noticed how much content I miss by reading online. It also forced me to focus on quality rather than quantity. Reading newspapers in print is quite frankly so much more civilized.

And yet it may soon become a thing of the past. The newspaper industry is in crisis. In the US, several newspapers have been forced to close down; others have switched to online-only versions. Most newspapers have reduced the number of pages they print and many have cut whole sections such as film reviews. Foreign correspondents have become an endangered species and staffing levels have been drastically cut. And the worst is yet to come. The last decade has seen a fatal combination of collapsing sales of advertising and revenue and falling circulation. Combine that with a high level of debt and you can understand why newspaper groups are facing meltdown. Take the San Francisco Chronicle. It is reputed to have lost $1 million a week in 2008.

The Internet has hit newspapers with a vengeance. Not only do more and more people read newspapers online instead of buying them, but it has also wiped out former cash cows such as classified advertising.

Falling profitability of newspapers is not confined to the US. It is an international trend. Arab newspaper groups have also seen their profit margins hit by Internet news and by the fall in advertising revenue, a trend which will only be aggravated by the current recession. Of course, since many Arab newspapers are financed by political groups rather than run as purely commercial enterprises, the consequences of this fall in profitability differ. Advertising and circulation rates have never played the same role in the Arab media as in the US or Europe. But still, the question remains: Are we in danger of seeing the death of newspapers?

The answer is an unequivocal no. The way newspapers are financed and run will definitely change. There is no doubt that the switch to online news is here to stay but that in itself does not mean a fall in the number of people reading the news. Quite the opposite, readership has increased. Whereas, for instance, this paper could once only be read in the Gulf, it can now be read anywhere in the world where an Internet connection exists. The Internet has opened up a whole new horizon for newspaper readership.

The problem is how to make that pay. Charging for online content has so far been a failure. Advertising revenue from online news is nowhere near as substantive as that from print editions. So what to do?

The argument is raging in the news industry. Several ideas have been put forward. The most promising is that of charging for newspaper content much in the same way as we pay for cable television. Rather than pay something every time we read a story, a flat fee would be paid giving us access to a whole network of news.

We are in the middle of a transition. At the moment, it feels wrong to pay for news on the Internet because it is psychologically not in our mindset. The Internet is viewed as this big wide sea of information that anyone can dip into. But that's the thing, the more information there is available, the more we will require some kind of filter. Eventually, we will be willing to pay for news that we know to be from a trustworthy source. Moreover, what the Internet is good at is providing information. What newspapers add to that is critical analysis and that is something people are willing to pay for.

It is a mental switch and eventually people will think it normal to pay for news sources much in the same way that paying for cable television or satellite channels has become normative. The role of newspapers in society is not changing, just the way we read and finance them. As for print editions, just like books and movies in movie theaters, people will always want them. Online editions will not replace them altogether; they will just reduce the numbers. Reading a newspaper in print will remain a very civilized way to read the news.


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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Date:Mar 29, 2009
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