Before the entire city wakes up, hawkers diligently work their way across the entire town. They rapidly paddle their way through the empty streets and start distributing their goods at a frantic pace, just in time to ensure the businessman or the university professor wakes up to see the day’s newspaper placed perfectly at the corner of their breakfast table. That’s how the day begins. Fast forward, we see the housewife idly sitting in her room, browsing through the pages of a lifestyle magazine. Even the teenager is exploring the wonders of the world browsing through the colorful pages of his favorite monthly science magazine. Whether we agree or not, print – as a media – has been an integral part of the human identity. Ever since the industry of printing witnessed its monumental inception before 220 AD, the industry has surely come a long way. From its humble beginning in China in the form of woodblock printing, print has evolved – becoming one of the most widely used forms of communication. Print media has witnessed its glory days, spanning across countless countries in the form of newspapers, tabloids, magazines, etc. And as the days have passed a new player has emerged in the scene, pushing print media into a battle for survival. The new player is none other than digital media. As the plethora of social networking sites and numerous apps increases, we, the readers are forced to speculate what the future of print media might be? Will print media face an unfortunate death, being replaced by digital media? Or will it morph into something entirely different, and reign as the most dependable form of media on the planet?
Print Media – Survival in times of Digital
It’s no secret that print media has been witnessing a steep reduction in value and volume over the years. As the years have passed, not only did the global circulation numbers drop, but so has the advertising revenue. A research stated that in 2015, print media accounted for 4% of people’s time. On the flip side, mobile devices managed to capture 25% of people’s time. While local and widely celebrated newspapers like The Daily Guide or Buteman have discontinued their operations, the big players have still managed to somewhat ride the tide; by adopting several strategies. This year’s most notable survival story in the print has been the merger between two of the largest American newspaper publishers Ganett and GateHouse Media. The $1.4 billion deal will give rise to a new conglomerate that will own more than 250 daily newspapers; reaching an audience of 145 million every month. This portrays one survival strategy that the print media is adopting – combining forces and strengthening their base. Another tactic that is becoming more predominant these days is that newspapers are opening up their digital subsidiaries. New York Times, Huffington Post, the Economist, and many others have established their presence in the digital ecosystem. In 2018, The New York Times Company generated more than $709 million in digital revenue; which shows that they have a very high possibility of reaching their planned $800 million in digital sales by the end of 2020. The shift from their platform to digital is not just observed in print media; in fact, the very same is applicable for Electronic Media as well. CNN has recently raised quite an uproar by investing a total of $70 million in their digital storytelling company Great Big Story; with hopes of creating a next-generation “cable network” – without the cable TV part in it, ironically. Whether we accept it or not, a change is surely headed our way.
From News to Content – A paradigm shift
The entire transition can be summed up in one sentence – “A shift is being experienced from institutionally-controlled media to user-controlled media”. While print newsrooms continue to cut jobs, human resources – both youngsters and veterans – are swarming to work in content outlets that have moved into original news reporting. This exponential rise of content platforms, fueled by mass usage of social media, is anything but indomitable. According to Forbes, social media has now established itself as the main source of news online. With a gigantic pool of over 2.4 billion internet users, about 64.5% receive breaking news from Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Snapchat and Instagram instead of social media. However, a decrease has been observed in how many articles people read. In most cases, people simply scroll through their newsfeed and come across relevant news content but just go through the headlines or a short video clip of the piece. An average visitor is likely to read an article for 15 seconds or less and the average video watch time online is around 10 seconds.
This shrinkage of our attention span, preference of short-form content and our increasing penchant towards social media platforms is the fuel that has fed the growth of next-generation content platforms. In 2006, Buzzfeed was just another small start-up in New York. In 2019, this small startup has grown on to expand their locations in 11 countries and has more than 108.7 million visitors swarming their website every month. One of Buzzfeed’s most notable competitors – Vox Media – is also worthy of praise. With the integration of multiple media brands, a self-developed publishing platform as well as a content studio, Vox Media has set out to change the future of journalism and entertainment. Vox Media is primarily made up of eight media brands: The Verge (technology and culture), Vox (general interest news), SB Nation (sports), Polygon (gaming), Eater (Food and Nightlife), Racked (shopping, beauty, and fashion), Curbed (real estate and home), and Recode (technology business). All of Vox’s brands are built on “Concert”, the publisher-led marketplace for advertising, and “Chorus”, the proprietary content management system. Such a phenomenal integration of multiple media brands catering to the information needs of carefully segregated demographics have given this American company a meteoric rise that only a few could imagine. As of yet, Vox Media has had an investment of $200 million by NBCUniversal and is valued at $1 billion.
Fusion – The rise of Aggregated Content
Apart from the obvious rise of digital media; another thing that has also picked up in recent times is the rise of News Aggregators. Simply put, aggregators pull together and allow you to assemble news from a variety of sources in one place. An example of an aggregator is Pulse, which allows you to select from sources of content (whether magazine, blog or your social streams) to customize your news reading experience on mobile devices. It’s a next-generation platform that’s been strong on the content side. A similar service is Google Currents, which doesn’t have the social integration like most but does provide a deeper experience with its publications by creating sections with each. So, if you want to dive into Slate’s news and politics section or Popular Science’s gadget section, you can. Like Pulse, Currents also curates top stories across categories with the help of algorithms. The most widely used of the newsreaders has been Flipboard, which terms itself as “your social magazine”. Its apps led the way in providing a pleasant, magazine-like reading experience from your social streams along with a customizable set of sources. It also comprises of an editorial team that curates timely and interesting content into a variety of channels – which improves the quality of the channels over those driven by algorithm alone – and that also creates event-driven packaging of sources. The company has grown to over 100 million monthly active users and is valued at more than $800 million. Flipboard has also ensured global dominance over the years, with strong readership bases in Germany, Spain, France, and Italy apart from the U.K. and the U.S.
Subscriptions – Rethinking Revenue Models of the Print Media
As more and more digital consumers start to flock into digital content platforms, the battle of surviving in this highly competitive media landscape has increasingly grown fierce among the goliaths of the media industry. Media companies now cannot solely rely on advertising revenue to ensure their long-term sustainability. Instead, they have turned their attention to their customers, i.e. the readers/viewers/listeners to extract more value. Enter, subscription models. With an annual membership fee, the customer gets access to unlimited or highly curated content – allowing them to discover more of the platforms’ offerings. Consumers have always played around the idea of subscribing to ‘content,’ whether it was a newspaper, magazine, or cable television subscription. But the trend of consumers subscribing to digital content has been on an upward curve. Netflix has 93 million subscribers, Spotify 40 million, Apple Music 20 million, Hulu 12 million, and HBO NOW 2 million. The New York Times and The Financial Times are increasingly replacing their digital advertising revenues with digital subscription revenues. The key revenue driver for the New York Times has been its digital subscription business, which added more than half a million paid subscribers in 2016. Deloitte has also predicted that by 2020 half of U.S. adults will have four online-only subscriptions, up from two today. And that is a trend that print media companies are aspiring to tap into globally. In an industry which now revolves around the readers, media companies are constantly trying to add more revenue by making sure they gain a sufficient number of subscribers – in exchange for access to content that will keep the readers of today updated and well-informed.
Fake News – Overcoming today’s biggest challenge
The challenges that the print media has faced a decade ago has also started to change. Challenges related to printing cost, paper cost or employee benefits still prevail; but the industry has faced certain new challenges over the years. One key challenge that has started to threaten the entire industry is the proliferation of fake news. According to a recent survey conducted by IPSOS on behalf of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), fake news can be considered to be a global epidemic. The survey, conducted with 25,000 respondents across 25 countries discovered that 4 out of 5 internet users have been exposed to fake news. Among them, nearly 86% of the respondents reported having initially believed that the news was real. With the increasing usage of social media, the creation and mass spreading of fake news across any particular community has become very easy nowadays. Add to the that people’s lack of orientation towards social media usage and our natural tendency to deviate towards controversial information. This is one aspect where veteran media companies get to exercise their bargaining power. Backed by seasoned journalists and full-fledged editorial crews, traditional print media companies are always a step ahead when compared to the upcoming content platforms. However, apart from the industry divide, the proliferation of fake news is alarming for the entire industry as a whole. Social media platforms, the breeding grounds of such fake news, have also started to take proactive steps. Facebook has started to surface more information about the publisher with each article. Users will start seeing the letter ‘i’ near the headline of an article which will give users information about the publisher’s Facebook and Wikipedia pages, as well a ‘related articles’ feed and stats on how other users are sharing the information. This gives readers more power and information and allows them to verify the authenticity of the news by themselves.
The Road Ahead
Where will the decline in the readership of newspapers eventually lead to? Will subscription models as well the wide array of technological innovations of the digital media work in the long run? Or will they instead give rise to serious threats like fake news and propaganda-based content? We cannot necessarily predict, but the forecast surely seems to be full of potential. As readers and their media consumption plan continue to evolve, so are the forms of content. Advertisers have jumped on the bandwagon as well – creating branded content to forge meaningful bonds between their brand and the consumers. Renowned American TV Journalist once prophesied, “Think of it: television producers joining with newspapers to tell stories. It’s the journalism of the future. Advertising will follow the crowd – the ‘crowd’ being viewers and readers, of course, which could bring revenue back into journalism.” Needless to say, his prophecy did indeed come true. The future will determine the survival, growth, and evolution of print media.