21st century tube life — an original illustration by Javan Stead

It’s the end of print journalism as we know it

The future is always uncertain; especially when it comes to traditional media.

We as a race are obsessed with what’s coming next, what’s going to happen and trying to predetermine the outcome. Print has struggled since the beginning of the millennium, so predicting what will happen in years to come will take more than just a crystal ball.

An illustration of the notorious Rebekah Brooks. Credit: Surian Soosay / Flickr

Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News UK (aka News International) after having been cleared of all charges of phone hacking in relation to the Leveson Inquiry, was recently reinstated to her former position. During her first attempt at running a media empire, she promised to set the wheels in motion to push journalism to be “an economically exciting proposition”, erecting paywalls left, right and centre. Brooks confidently stated that “this is just the start”.

As we now know, the pay walls haven’t really worked and weren’t the “defining moment” Brooks promised, and with 4 years away from the news industry, she’s come back to find a declining and struggling art form. Now, iPads and Twitter often surpass having a paper delivered to your door every morning, but what is going to happen next?

Many in the industry are confident about the future for print. Confident, but also aware of the need to adapt. Ryan Bird, the Editorial Director at Rock Sound magazine feels that as a niche magazine, they have managed to take the appropriate steps to make sure they stay in touch with their readers: “we know what our readers want, we know how they operate. We can reach them because we’ve got a really good online presence, we’ve got a full-time social media person to engage with them”.

With a young demographic, using their social media presence to its fullest potential is vitally important to their survival. And it’s working. “We are a profitable company”, Bird admitted, “not only did we increase sales last year, we did the year before that and so on”. The ABC figures released earlier this year attest to this impressive achievement, with them having a circulation of over 14,000 now. According to Bird, their online site which sees print copies of the magazines shipped worldwide, has massively boosted their reach and is hugely important to them becoming a profitable publication.

The massive increase in Rock Sound’s sales over the past few years: ABC 2016 / Quote from Rock Sound

Rock Sound didn’t need to adapt to the potential changes as they were aware of it from the beginning and were constantly upping their game so they could stay afloat in this difficult period.

However, this may prove difficult for traditional publications who refused to alter their ways earlier. George Brock, a Professor at City University London, who has researched the history of journalism extensively says that: “it is extremely volatile, extremely changeable, extremely difficult, often disrupted and a lot of experimentation and improvisation is necessary”.

Experiments like paywalls, online subscriptions and the move of huge print publications to online, such as The Independent and fashion magazine InStyle UK in late 2016, may not always be successful but are vital to the survival of journalism.

Many journalists still insist that there will ‘always be room for print’, but maybe not in the same way it is now. Andrew Jaspan, editor of The Conversation in Australia and former serial newspaper editor in the UK, predicts that: “print will largely go, except maybe as expensive luxury products, such as a £5 Sunday paper for those who like to read print and have a break from a screen/phone”.

Everyday newspapers could transcend into luxury commodities, that could be put side by side with fashion giant Vogue on the newsstands. Wesley Johnson, managing editor at BT.com, is more hopeful of the fact that, “print will always have a part to play”, but that it will have to mix up its style to stay relevant: “the newspapers with the best chance of survival are doing more than just breaking news — they are adding their own content to it, things that you haven’t seen somewhere else. At the end of the day, papers are always going to be expected to cover news”.

A newsstand the day after Article 50 was triggered, showing no more than ‘breaking’ news.

Not everyone feels there’s a light at the end of the tunnel though. “I don’t think there’s much room for news print anymore. Sales will continue to decline and I think most papers will end up making the shift to online”, explains Henry Austin, assistant news editor at the i.

Having been through this during his time at The Independent, he is understandably wary of the facts that face the industry he has worked in his whole life. He said, “I just think the way people consume news now is completely different, they get everything online where most of the time it’s available for free and a lot of publications are struggling”, which is turning out to be the case for a lot of the old Fleet Street comrades.

It seems that the only way to go is to embrace adaptation. A recurring circumstance is that of publications folding because they are not ready to use the boom in online content to their advantage.

Just one example of Rock Sound utilising their social media presence — using Twitter to promote a Spotify playlist made specifically for their audience.

Take Rock Sound as an example of how utilising web presence has consistently taken them from strength to strength. Their sales boost every year and Bird says the trouble in the print industry is “not something that keeps him up at night”. Not many other people who head up a newspaper or magazine, especially a niche one, can say that.

Whilst many think that there will always be room for print, due to the vast history and culture that is ingrained into society, it is important for publications to start thinking about their target markets more in depth: who are they? Are they still buying papers, or do they download them straight to their iPads? Do they even still engage in news outside of social media anymore?

Trying out different methods to appeal to readers will help to publications keep up with competitive online brands. The future is bright and experimentation will always be at the very heart of journalism. As Bird said, “a mistake is only a mistake if you don’t learn from it”.

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