To have and to hold? Newspapers (just) surviving 12 years after this …

By MARK PEARSON

I just found this piece I wrote for the Otago Daily Times in New Zealand for its 140th anniversary issue almost 12 years ago.

My brief was to gaze into my crystal ball and foretell the future for newspapers. Futurology is always fraught, but on reflection I think I called it reasonably well at the time. What do you think?

(Of course, it’s quite a different outlook now!)

——

‘To have and to hold: newspapers on way back’, Otago Daily Times, December 11, 2001, p. 39

By Mark Pearson

Five years ago the Internet seemed to have scripted the death of newspapers.

Here was a hypertextual, instant, multi-level, multimedia technology with the potential to spawn new communities, reinvigorate old ones, and to fulfill the roles of all preceding media in a single interactive device.

Predictions of the death of newspapers were so common during the dot.com boom they had become almost trite.

Converts to the Web thumbed their noses at newspaper executives and compared them with the bosses of the stagecoach industry at the turn of the last century: while the future of horses as a species was assured, their function as the primary form of transport was destined for extinction.

Writer and academic Neil Postman even ventured to question the future of journalism in the modern era.

“What is the problem to which the profession of journalism is the solution?” he asked.

Postman argued that in the nineteenth century, journalism answered the problem of scarce information, but by the end of the last millennium the problem had become a glut of information.

“The problem is how to decide what is significant, relevant information, how to get rid of unwanted information,” he said.

When applied to newspapers, others suggested the problem was exacerbated by competition from other media, the loss of the notion of “community” in modern society, and the increasing pressures upon the average consumer’s time.

Add to this the fact that media consumers in Western democratic nations had experienced more than 20 years of relative peace and prosperity (in other words, little of large-scale importance to read about) and it seemed there were few remaining reasons why anyone would want to buy a newspaper.

One scholar, the US historian C. John Sommerville, pointed to another inherent problem in the news media: it is the business of products like newspapers to make the front page every day look like their contents are important and relevant, even though nothing earth-shattering might have actually happened in the preceding 24 hours.

Sommerville argues that over time this has dulled audiences to the contents of news products, leaving them with a lack of trust in the relative importance of the day’s headlines.

In his book How the News Makes Us Dumb, Sommerville says the news makes citizens “dumb” by dissecting reality, leaving the public with no idea of what to make of our times.

Nevertheless, two important events in the recent past have changed much of that and have allowed newspapers the opportunity to recapture the attention and loyalty of ordinary citizens.

One was the dot.com crash, the other the events of September 11, 2001.

The collapse of the financial markets’ confidence in Internet companies sent investors and consumers back to safer, reliable and tangible media commodities. And the newspaper was as safe and reliable and tangible a medium as one could find.

Despite generally declining circulations and dwindling titles since the 1950s, newspapers had continued to hold, if not improve, their share of the advertising dollar in an increasingly competitive media market. And all along the way they were recognized as wielding tremendous influence over important decision-makers in society, and for setting the agenda for competing media outlets.

The dot.com crash restored advertisers’ confidence in the safety of a quarter page advertisement in the morning daily over the ethereal promise of a million hits on some start-up backyard enterprise’s web site.

Like a good old-fashioned bride or groom, the newspaper was something “to have and to hold”, and it was somewhat comforting for advertisers to know their quarter page ad in the Daily Planet was going to land on a finite, countable number of front lawns in its shrink-wrap cover before breakfast the next morning.

The terrorism attack on America on September 11 and its aftermath also found newspapers back in their element as a chronicle and interpreter of world-shattering news within hours of its occurrence.

Certainly, there had been a shift in the role of newspapers as a medium since their heyday reporting the Second World War in the 1940s.

Then, with radio as their only competitor, they were bringing the actual news of distant events to their readers.

On September 12, 2001, they still delivered that news, but they offered much more: graphic colour photographic coverage and pages of background information and analysis that other media could not match.

As I stumbled down my driveway to pick up my local newspaper on that historic morning, having just seen the news report on the television, I was amazed that my local newspaper had been able to produce several pages of coverage of an event that had not even happened when I went to bed the night before.

The sheer thought of producing a printed product of considerable sophistication within that timeline reminded me of why the newspaper, something most of us take for granted, once earned the nickname “The Daily Miracle”.

Newspapers the world over relished the opportunity to cover such an important happening and interpret it for their readers.

And readers appreciated it, with newspaper titles throughout the world returning record circulations since that event as readers sought out tangible details on the attacks and the ensuing war and looked to newspapers for reliable expert comment and analysis.

This important news puts newspapers in their element, and its scarcity over the past half century has combined with other factors to erode the daily reading habit.

Newspaper executives hope their extra investment in the terrorism coverage will win back many of those lost readers.

We have yet to see whether that strategy is successful, but either way it would be a brave soothsayer who would predict the imminent death of newspapers.

We live in hope that events like those of September 11 will not recur and that the world will soon return to relative peace.

Even if that scenario comes to pass, newspapers will not die in the short to medium term.

Their circulations might decline gradually, and the number of newspaper titles might continue to diminish.

But those that survive will continue to play an important role in democratic societies and their influence among decision-makers and power brokers will continue to exceed their actual circulations.

© Mark Pearson 2001 and 2013

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