Print Media – A Matter of Life And Death

This week’s course materials sent us down the rabbit hole of how the digital environment is changing the delivery of news. It was a timely journey with word that Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, was to purchase the Washington Post and related mastheads for a cool US$250million. As reported by the Post, the vendor initially approached the sale as unthinkable but went on to justify the deal as being necessary to ensure continued growth for the Post as opposed to merely survival. Bezos was apparently chosen as the anointed buyer due to his technical brilliance.

It is not beyond the realm to suggest that other high profile newspapers will go the same way in the shorter to medium term. The financial troubles of print or “old school media” (OSM) in grappling with unsuccessful paywalls, fragmentation of audiences across multiple platforms and the pressures to retain quality in their journalistic endeavours are well chronicled. The fact that these topics make for interesting reading is highlighted by the recent release of two books providing commentary on the decline of the Fairfax empire *. Perhaps if readers are reluctant to pay to go behind Fairfax’s paywall, they will be less reluctant to pay to get perspectives on how a once robust and powerful media empire now finds itself losing relevance. The books, Fairfax: The Rise And Fall by Colleen Ryan and Killing Fairfax: Packer, Murdoch & the Ultimate Revenge by Pamela Williams , both of which have shades of the ’80s TV series, Dallas, are ironically being heralded as examples of professional independent journalism.

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

The demise of Fairfax is being played out against the backdrop of convergence and divergence. Convergence generally refers to the notion of integration between different platforms. For example, your computer is no longer just a computer, it can also double as a television, newspaper and a telecommunications device. Translated into the media space, this means that the same news story can be delivered through multiple platforms and people are tending to rely more and more on online news sources. Online news is generally categorized by the notions of automation, personalisation and participation and news production, once the sole province of big business is being shared with cottage industry players. OSM has generally been seen to be slow to respond to the new converged environment, losing their main sources of advertising revenue, namely classified advertising, to online players and initially providing online news for free as a supplement to their mainstream print activities. All of this leads to a fragmentation, if not a complete erosion, of audiences who are generally now reluctant to pay for news content that they can obtain free from other sources. This is where divergence becomes relevant, because in the new digital world, news production has now become decentralized and instead of the one to many news dissementation model, we have moved to the many to many or many to few model, leading to financial impacts for OSM stables and their journalists.

It is certainly an interesting time to be watching the news media space as the latest newspaper circulation figures released today attest. Should this be a time of fear or a time of opportunity? Will traditional journalists be able to rise to the challenge of the digital media world and share their public writing space with all of us?

You might be looking at the cover of the last magazine I will ever buy

You might be looking at the cover of the last magazine I will ever buy

In an interesting juxtaposition, the changing way I receive news was recently brought home to me by the birth of Prince George. This was a wonderful feel-good story involving the giving of life and the birth of a new royal generation to a smart looking prince and his beautiful princess. I, along with millions of others around the world eagerly awaited news of the royal birth. And where were we looking for it? It wasn’t in the newspapers or TV, it was where we could get realtime news, the Internet. We marvelled at Kate’s poise and real world post-pregnancy figure and we watched in wonder as Prince William doted on his new son and looked just as awkward carrying him as every first time father. In the following week after the birth, the traditional 10 page magazine spread appeared on newsstands. What was different though was that they now carried the same pictures that we had already seen online days before. In what was probably a slightly nostalgic move, I bought a copy as a keepsake as looking through Internet archives does not have the same feel as flipping through glossies as a reminder of a major world event. Not yet anyway.

But what this signaled to me was that my weekly news entertainment magazine habit had died a sad death. Magazine publication day used to be a highlight of my week, now magazines were reserved for special events or overseas travel. As an asside, there is nothing like catching up on celebrity gossip and leisurely rereading the same article three times on a long haul flight.

The funny thing was, I had not really noticed that my magazine buying habits had changed until these life and death events. I had effortlessly slipped into reading entertainment news online along with most everyone else and was reshaping news culture.

Are you still prepared to pay for news? Are you worried about what will happen to the quality of journalism in the digital world? Do you still buy magazines?

* For my overseas readers, Fairfax is a long standing media group in Australia and is the main competitor of the Murdoch lead News Media group. It controls several of the capital city major newspapers, such as the Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review (being the Wall Street Journal equivalent). Australia has one of the most concentrated media ownership markets in the world.
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