"The death of the newspaper" is not imminent, according to a recent study by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development that looked at the effect of the Internet on the news industry. 'The Evolution of News and the Internet' aims to assist OECD governments as they consider what sort of support to offer their newspaper industries, and "to provide a platform for further exchange on immediate and longer-term policy development." It provides readership, circulation and other statistics and looks closely at the effects of the Internet on news publishers, debating whether the Internet poses more of an opportunity or a challenge for news organisations.
"The report raises some tough questions on how to safeguard high-quality journalism, which policy initiatives focused on 'salvaging' traditional newspapers, will fail to address. For policy-makers the only real concern should be how to preserve independent news production, regardless through which medium. For businesses, it is about finding the right business models. But we still have a long way to go concerning both these imperatives," Sacha Wunsch-Vincent, senior economist and author of the OECD report, told the Editors Weblog.
Newspapers in 20 out of 31 OECD countries are facing declining readership, and estimated newspaper publishing market decline between 2007 and 2009 is 30% in the US and 21% in the UK. 2009 was the worst year for newspaper publishers in most countries, according to the report. However, the study stressed that taking into account a potential economic recovery and the rise of newspapers in non-OECD countries, the medium does not seemed threatened worldwide. And in some countries readership is still extremely high, with 96% and 92% of adults reading newspapers in Iceland and Japan respectively.
In line with popular thinking, the report concluded that the specialized press performs better than general newspapers. Local and regional papers have suffered more than national ones in many countries, except in France, Slovenia, Norway, Hungary, Italy and Japan.
The report was clear that despite the decline, this is also a "period of great opportunity" for news outlets as they look to make best use of the Internet. Traffic to news sites has grown rapidly, with a conservative estimate of 5% of all Internet visits relating to online news reading.
The report noted the potential of technology to create innovative multimedia reporting, and cited the National Film Board of Canada, on environmental impacts on the great lakes, the BBC's climate change portal, the Washington Post's investigation into the state of schools, and EveryBlock as examples of "impressive multimedia reporting."
Wunsch-Vincent expressed admiration for the "democratising effect of the Internet and the power it provides to you access information and news." It is "a wonderful check and balance on the traditional media," he continued. However, the immediate and competitive nature of online news provides challenges also. "You cannot help to be deeply concerned by whether editorial standards are being upheld, and the trend towards softer entertainment news, the need to appeal to advertisers and the 'copy-paste' culture of the web," he said.
The nature of online news reading is different to that in print, the study explained. "It is unclear whether online readers obtain the same depth and breadth of news as traditional readers," as people reading news online have a tendency to jump swiftly from source to source and only read the stories that interest them.
The study discusses the different ways that people read online news, via search engines, aggregators and looking at multiple different sources: generally the reader experience is more fragmented than in print. It found, however, that "It is very difficult to assess the relative quality of online versus offline news readership." There are those who claim that online news reading is more superficial, but then there is the fact that access to a wider ranges of sources enables a deeper understanding. Online news reading is also becoming more and more international.
It does not necessarily seem that online news reading is substituting print reading, and the study noted that "for the most part reading news on line complements other forms of news rather than replacing it." For example, 70% of the New York Times' registered online users are print subscribers. There are still "very few people" who rely exclusively on online news, and "avid online news readers are likely to be professionals and also readers of printed news."
The report also noted that in the OECD countries with the highest circulation of daily newspapers - Japan with 526 paid daily papers per 1 000 population on an average day, Norway with 458 issues, Finland with 400, Sweden with 362 and Switzerland with 292 - all have very high broadband penetration also. People in these countries clearly have easy access to online news but still choose to buy print copies.
However, for young people online news really does dominate. The 25-34 year-old age group are the most active online news readers in most OECD countries, and the Internet is the main source of news for the 16-24 year-old age bracket. "The real concern however is that a significant proportion of young people are not reading conventional news at all, or irregularly," the study notes. The numbers of young people who are not reading news at all are increasingly in several countries, including the US and France. And young people are not necessarily information-literate, they "rely heavily on search engines, view rather than read and sometimes do not possess the critical skills to assess the information they find on the web," it continued. This echoes concerns expressed by Jad Melki at the recent Arab Free Press Forum in Beirut, where he said he had detected "an alarmingly high level of trust in online media" and a lack of criticism.
Online, there are so many other players involved that control over access to the consumer and pricing of news has been largely taken out of publishers' hands. News aggregators are not necessarily stealing a vast amount of traffic from news organisations, however, accounting for "less than 10% of total news-related traffic in the United States and more like 5% in the United Kingdom and Australia." In the UK, the BBC's website dominates traffic, followed by Sky News and Yahoo News, and in the US and Australia, print organisations' webpages capture the most.
"Partnerships such as the ones emerging around the iPad are the way to go," Wunsch-Vincent said. But he stressed the need to be careful about relying on these too much, adding that, "you will not turn the clock back on user habits. Younger readers will no longer be willing to pay for access to only one newspaper. They are interested in a multimedia-bundle (text, video, blogs), to be able to compare news, get different viewpoints, etc. In that sense, our youths are maybe wiser and better informed news consumers than our parents used to be."
Policy: who's doing what?
The study looks at how new organisations can balance sustaining a healthy news industry, which is essential to a democratic society, while crucially preserving the independence of the press. Increased convergence also means that it is essential to look at regulatory equality. Can the production of high-quality news content be left to the market?
Italy, France and Sweden give the most direct financial support to their presses. Some countries such as the Netherlands subsidise the press to promote media diversity. Some support training for journalists and press-related school projects, for example. In Korea, funds support "digital infrastructure build-up for newspaper production and distribution systems."
Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Spain, Turkey, the UK and US do not provide direct subsidies for the press. Many European nations provide indirect subsidies such as tax rebates and reduced postal rates. The report provides a comprehensive summary of who is doing what (page 67.)