eXtensions - Monday 15 May 2017

Cassandra: The Shrinking World of News (1) - Print

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


Information has always been an essential commodity since the time of the first Marathon (and before). After a battle at that place, a runner was sent to announce the result (unfortunately the effort killed him). While financial services have always recognized the need for intelligence, it was not until the 1990s that its importance to the wider public started to become more obvious. In works like Power Shift, Future Shock, and The Third Wave, as well as Creating a New Civilization (with Heidi Toffler), Alvin Toffler - and others - theorised on the changes that the 21st Century would bring.

While we had recognised the power of money and the barrel of a gun (Mao Zedong), the new power, he rightly put forward, was information. But some of the strength has been diluted by the growth of the internet and its accessibility. Toffler saw worldwide networking in one way as a means to linking trading, but may not have envisaged (at least not in these works) the revolutionary change that would arrive.

The internet was initially a military project to ensure important links were maintained in the event of nuclear war (in the UK the Speaking Clock was the guaranteed connection system). What began to change the internet into a powerful information conduit was the World Wide Web: a scientist's solution to linking different computer platforms at CERN so that information could be shared. The catalyst was the graphical browser.

A second catalyst appeared in 2007 with the iPhone. While it was preceded by sophisticated communication devices, such as Palm, O2 Xda and Blackberry, the Apple product brought in other features that were soon copied by competitors. In his 2007 address, when Steve Jobs referred to the third purpose of "breakthrough internet communications device" applause was muted, perhaps because few in the audience could imagine the potential.

My first look at the internet was using a text-only UNIX utility, Lynx. This will still run on a Mac, although navigation is difficult these days. One of the first sites I examined was a London newspaper. I had been used to the restrictions of Gopher that linked libraries online, but this clearly opened up a far wider range of possibilities.

As graphics became more sophisticated and other file types (like movies) could be viewed, so internet use grew:

  • Around 40% of the world population has an internet connection today. In 1995, it was less than 1%.

  • The number of internet users has increased tenfold from 1999 to 2013.

  • The first billion was reached in 2005. The second billion in 2010. The third billion in 2014. (Internet Live Stats)

That site also shows an ever-increasing number of users that has reached 3,630,000,000 and shows no sign of stopping. 48.4% of users are now in Asia.

The first forays into news were quite open with few sites placing restrictions on content access. The internet was free and that always increases use. Some content providers did limit access - wisely as it turns out - but the paywall was seen by most users as a barrier either to go round or avoid.

making the world go round With few paying customers, the main source of income had to come from advertising, which fits in with the traditional approach of older media types. Newspapers have always relied on this rather than the cover price, while commercial TV coined that "licence to print money" phrase in the 1960s. The internet is not a traditional method of delivering content, so applying the same approach that had worked in the past, was an error and in the early part of this century, first print, then television began to feel the pain.

Another approach that has met with some limited success is the subscription. This depends partly on need (e.g. Bloomberg) but may also work for other reasons, including a feeling that the site or site owner is justified in asking for support. Others may also ask for financial support on a voluntary basis while those who do not rely on site income also offer ways such as PayPal donations (I use this) for occasional support.

Some sites are trying a hybrid approach with limited access for a specific period. The New York Times is reported (Rani Molla, Recode) to have doubled its digital business - especially subscriptions - in the last 6 years, while print revenue has fallen 18%. Some of that digital growth also came from online advertising. Unlike a number of other publications, the paper version of the newspaper still brings in higher revenue.

That is not the case for a number of newspapers. Some have now stopped their print versions and rely solely on the world wide web. For these it is essential to have a proper strategy to balance access and income. Many are not succeeding in this and there have been closures. There will be more.

A false strategy tried by several publications, is staff reduction. The Chicago-Sun Times tried this several years ago dismissing all of its photographers (Gregory Eddi Jones, Petapixel), including a Pulitzer Prize winner, in the hope that reporters with iPhones would record video and turn the tide. The Bangkok Post has tried a similar approach (twice) with freelance writers as it has tried to cope with falling sales and (more recently) low numbers of hits.

Disclaimer: I was a freelance writer for the Post Database for many years until that was ended with the first retrenchment. I was brought back 2 years later, but after 3 years "let go" again as the reality of its low percentage of internet hits compared with newcomers began to hit home.

Photography Almost at the same time that the Post contracted for the second time, News Corp in Australia sacked most of its photographers as a cost-cutting measure (Dunja Djudjic, Photography): "photographers and subeditors are first". Amanda Meade (Guardian) writes that, "The Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun and the Courier-Mail are set to lose dozens of staff each".

Fairfax also culled staff a couple of weeks later (Jacqueline Williams, New York Times), and this was not the first time: in 2014 Fairfax homogenised [my italics] the photographic departments of its publications (Chris Beck, Crikey), cutting 30 jobs. Nic Christensen (Mumbrella) put the number at 70-80 when production and lifestyle were added to the photographic figure. Missing from these redundancies and sackings are the directors, managers and accountants. Their strategies may have been more responsible for poor sales than the content produced by those who were dismissed, yet their jobs stayed intact.

They key for all sites is to have something that readers (or viewers) want. Whether this is unique financial intelligence or the essential views of a group of writers, who themselves may have special access to sources, it is now a buyer's market. It is up to the consumer to decide if it is worthwhile paying for the content, or in the case of supported sites (subscription, advertising or other) whether it is worth spending time on the site.

News spreads itself, so what may be a scoop becomes universally available within a few hours. This is why those with specific views or styles - that unique content - may be of most value to a publication. If all a source is able (or willing) to provide is wire-sourced information, then its value as a source is gutted and it loses the right to exist.

Unique content is of major importance for the success of any site. Reliance on old loyalties is misplaced as readers who feel they are not receiving value (even in a non-paying scenario) will seek out other sites that provide better information. As many publications are finding out almost too late, their good names are simply not enough.

The fight for existence also affects television, but that is another medium and has its own difficulties.

See also: Cassandra: The Shrinking World of News (2) - Television

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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