The future of newspapers in the digital age

The future of newspapers in the digital age based on two case studies, discussed from an international perspective and exploring ethical, social and professional aspects of the issue.

Since the advent of internet the means of communication have greatly expanded, completely transforming the world of news. Journalism is faced with new challenges while the news consumers are ever finding new ways to get informed. An article in The Guardian recently reported how “newspapers face up to the ad crunch in print and digital” (Sweney, 2015), reminding everyone in the industry how uncertain the future of newspapers is at the moment.

Publishers and news outlets have long been experimenting strategies to survive the digital revolution. The ability to monetise news, which once were under a certain monopoly, has become a source of incertitude and struggle. The implications could go far and wide within the industry: in terms of jobs for journalists, audience for outlets or even quality and ethics for journalism in general.

This essay will examine the development of digital international news from the perspectives of two British newspapers, The Guardian and The Sun. In the first part I will look at issues related to the digital transition which both newspapers had to undergo. It will highlight the differences between web and print in terms of writing as well as content. In the second part I will turn toward the concept of citizen journalism, the evolution of news and what it means in terms of ethics. In the third part I will contrast the two different strategies of The Sun and The Guardian, in terms of ownership and revenues. As the digital transition of newspapers points toward the adoption of similar new practices in terms of reporting, the ability to generate revenues also seems to depend on adopting the right strategy.

Both the The Guardian and The Sun are newspapers which existed before the start of the digital revolution and had to go through a transition in order to establish an online presence. In terms of writing both have kept their respective editorial lines while adapting to the web. Also while it is accepted that “good writing is good writing wherever and however it is published” (Hicks, Adams, Gilbert, & Holmes, 2008, p. 132) differences still apply between print and online news. One of the reasons being the readers’ volatility. Titles, style of writing and content were all important in print papers but it must now be adapted to the user interface of online websites. For example “neither excessive scrolling nor clicking is regarded as desirable in terms of design and usability” (Hicks, Adams, Gilbert, & Holmes, 2008, p. 132). The web has opened new possibilities in terms of content for both the readers and the writers. “The potential to customize content means readers may select only the content that appeals to them” (LAZAROIU, 2009, p. 155).

This digital adaptation has multiplied the ways to tell a story. As compared to print journalism, internet and its “media convergence, or cross platform journalism, requires its practitioners to posses multimedia skills” (Foreman, 2009, p. 364), which were not necessarily used before. In terms of content, while it has given place for new ways to spread stories, and this is particularly true in terms of international news, newspapers are now able to reach a bigger audience out of national borders and to adapt storytelling to the context, thanks to a wider range of multimedia tools.

Also The Guardian and the Sun have had traditional differences of editorial lines, the adaptation of their journalism to the web is marked by a broader use of multimedia. For example, looking at the recent Russian plane crash in Egypt and the way both papers covered it online, one may draw several conclusions:

1- Online editions allow for a broader use of tools. Both The Guardian (Luhn & Khalil, 2015) and The Sun (NATHAN, 2015) made use of embedded videos, pictures and even digital mapping.

2- Both papers are aware of the more international characters of their websites and stories are adapted to it.

3- However, both papers retain distinctive approaches as The Sun covered it in a more succinct way, with a feel that the journalist was writing the story from the UK making use of crowdsourcing and content curating. In the opposite, The Guardian feels like it had a more traditional approach as it covered the story with two journalists, one base in Moscow and the other in Egypt.

This difference of approaching international news actually takes us to the question of the differences between print and online foreign correspondence. Traditional national newspapers, such as The Guardian and The Sun, have realised the international potential of internet. “Studies comparing hard copy and online editions of mainstream newspapers have discovered that more international news is carried by the online version” (Williams, 2011, p. 161). However, this does not necessarily mean that our national newspapers will cover everything and anything international online. “The geography of online content still reflect the imbalances of the traditional mainstream media; web technology has not drastically changed what is reported as international news” (Williams, 2011, p. 161). In other words, newspapers have increased the number of international news online, but what is covered seems to remain on similar lines with print. The competitive character of captivating an online audience might be among the reasons. Also, covering only a certain type of stories seems an attempt to maintain a national identity and style. Also The Guardian might have had this tradition of covering international events in depth and details, the superficial covering of The Sun really seems to show this need to feed online readers, even at the cost of quality reporting.

As implied in the previous paragraphs, “change brought on by electronic media threatens the viability of traditional ways of reporting the news but offers promising new ways of disseminating information” (LAZAROIU, 2009, p. 157). In addition to that, the web has also given birth to citizen journalism. Technically it means that everyone with access to internet can get involved in a story, “global news can be produced from anywhere and by anyone” (Williams, 2011, p. 43). Internet has this way to get everyone connected. Local reporters, officials and non-government websites can all act as sources of foreign news (Williams, 2011, p. 43). In fact proximity to the event often places citizen journalists at the forefront of a story, the Tunisian blogger, Lina ben Mhenn, behind ‘The Tunisian girls’ blog gained the statue of “a virtual newsroom for foreign journalists” (Hoffmann , 2013, p. 170) during the Tunisian revolution.

“With its convergence of prose, video, still images, and audio, the web offers exciting opportunities” (Foreman, 2009, p. 12) but citizen journalism does not come without its array of ethical challenges. Issues such as post first, verify later, post first, correct later and the lack of editing on many blogs (Foreman, 2009, p. 12) can really affect the general quality of how stories are told. Professionally, it can “also lead to a decrease in the capacity and time reporters have to assess the veracity and quality of the information” (Williams, 2011, p. 168). Events can go viral and around the world really fast on internet. Very often “journalists have to learn new ranges of skills to be able to do their job — and some of them are not necessarily things that their predecessors would recognize as being journalism” (Holmes, Hadwin, & Mottershead, 2013, p. 210).

Going back to the Russian plane story, both The Sun and The Guardian have used a variety of tweets and videos to complement the main articles. The Guardian even makes use of an Instagram picture from the account of a Russian user who died in the crash. Interestingly, a new feature added by the web is the ability to request the reader to share stories. While it would have been impossible to ask readers to share a printed newspaper before the digital age, it is now common practice to place Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest sharing buttons at the bottom of an article. Both newspapers commonly make use of such digital features. Even if “social networking is primarily a place to meet friends, it has a growing news media value” (BENTLEY, 2011, p. 115). Since the advent of social networks, “reading habits and the way people obtain information are changing” (Tremblay, 2015, p. 144), while the “democratisation of media gives each of us access to information and a voice” (Hoffmann , 2013, p. 234). Online news, citizen journalism and writing platforms, blogging in particular, have provided alternative outlets, even to the discontented audience (BENTLEY, 2011, p. 113).

In fact, it has also been argued that citizen journalism is not necessarily a threat to traditional journalism but more of a complement (BENTLEY, 2011, p. 104). Within the web universe “journalists and audiences interact on the same level, as co-communicators who together negotiate the meaning of the news” (Robinson, 2011, p. 159). While it is true that “new technologies have swept away journalists’ monopoly of international news gathering” (Williams, 2011, p. 168), “we still need reporters on the ground to ask and answer questions….networks of witnesses, participants and experts add to the news in ways not possible before” (Carvin, 2013).

It seems obvious that journalists may not be able to compete any more for content creation and quantity as the number of blogs and websites ever increases, However, “there will be a bigger place for the journalist who helps media consumer find the information they want” (BENTLEY, 2011, p. 116). Indeed such an overwhelming amount of information may point toward a growing need for “professionally compiled digests” (Williams, 2011, p. 171).

After having briefly looked at the digital evolution of newspapers such as The Guardian and The Sun, many elements point toward the fact that both have developed similarities in terms of practices, storytelling and audience reach. Now, I would like to look at how both papers compare in terms of revenues and the ability to monetise news.

The digital era has brought considerable changes to the way people interact with news and “the tide is flowing inexorably from old media towards the Internet, with a force that media managements cannot control” (Curran, 2010, p. 468). The mass access to online news also had effects on the content, in terms of format, length and even quality. Popular news is not anymore necessarily the most detailed and researched piece. In fact, short and entertaining is often a requirement to go viral. “The modern media Internet is filled with this kind of content, and some would argue (à la BuzzFeed) that this is the natural, current end-state evolution of easily monetizable media content”(Hyrkin, 2015).

The source of revenues in the news industry has also shifted as “advertising expenditures on the Internet overtook that of television in Denmark in 2008, followed by Britain in January to June 2009” (Curran, 2010, p. 468). However, even online revenues are not guaranteed. Regional studies in the Manchester area, UK, have demonstrated that “newspapers are caught in a revenue trap composed of decreasing advertising revenue coupled with declining circulation revenue “ (HILL, 2009, p. 123). While some have argued that the coupling of print and online edition could significantly improve results as per the advertising power of the web (HILL, 2009, p. 123), it is not always the case. As Sweney (2015) explained in his recent article, even if print advertisements remain the “lifeblood of income” it faces a clouded future.

In terms of strategies, The Guardian is betting on its future by having open access to its content, with no paywall and a focus on developing its online audience. While running at incredible annual losses, the paper also faces the fact that out of its 8 million daily users, two third are not from UK. The Guardian seems to see Ads as old fashion but it has been able to create other sources of revenues such as mobile applications or events organising. In contrast, The Sun has had a paywall strategy from 2013 to 2015, in an attempt to monetise on the 30 million users, it had back in 2012. Unfortunately, the paywall resulted in a huge loss of readers, falling to 117 thousand shortly after its implementation. Such difficult results prompted the recent announcement to scrap the paywall (Sun, 2015). Such a U-turn in just over two years shows the unviable character of paywalls as a strategy.

This revenue issue has become almost a trend in the industry and ultimately results in media ownership concentration constantly increasing (Tremblay, 2015, p. 145) and “power within the international newsgathering system becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer organisations” (Williams, 2011, p. 169).

The issue also affects journalists directly. Even if “the internet has a vast potential for reporting, websites are not yet profitable enough to support large news staffs on their own” (Foreman, 2009, p. 363). Traditional news outlets attracted an audience to newspapers or broadcast which they rented out to advertisers. “If online users cannot be persuaded to pay for access to news on the web,” (Foreman, 2009, p. 363) then a new business model need to be created.

Recent studies in Canada have demonstrated similar results. While some outlets try to bet on independent journalism through online subscriptions, others have turned to more convergent strategies. But the trend remains identical with a free digital shift, the game is increasingly “iPublish or perish” (Tremblay, 2015, p. 148). As seen in the example of The Sun, paywalls are not viable. A recent study (Franklin, 2014) has highlighted the following issues with paywalls: it represents only 10% of media companies’ revenues and while not viable, it is also seemed undemocratic to restrict news to only those who can afford it.

The first part of this essay has demonstrated the broad impact of the digital revolution on journalism and newspapers. It has affected all levels of the industry, from the writing to the multiplication of tools to tell stories. The democratising effect has also transformed the relations between news consumers and producers, giving rise to citizen journalism.

Both The Guardian and The Sun have adapted in similar ways to this digital transition, while being able to retain some identity. However, it is in terms of monetising news that both papers have differentiated from each other. Ultimately, The Sun had to give up its unsustainable paywall strategy. On the other hand, the open access of The Guardian is far from a sustainable business model but it does have the merit of keeping readers. In terms of content, it can easily be said that the future of newspaper is likely to be digital. However, monetising news is still a challenge. Multiple revenues streams such as readers, advertisers, events or e-commerce (Franklin, 2014) could provide alternatives but results remain to be established.

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Passionate about social media and UK graduate in journalism, I cover the south of France area Tarn and Garonne for the local press as a reporter. Bilingual English/French, with a good level in Arabic, I also collaborate on various publications of international dimension. For any project or collaboration, do not hesitate to contact me via Medium, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.