Ian Leach: Pending doom of the newspaper industry?

Monday, March 19, 2018 - 4:54pm

Every time I log on to my Facebook feed, I usually click on roughly four or five articles from publications like Vox or Politico. They’ve made it easy for me and practically every news consumer to read the news. With the development of the Instant Article on Facebook, I can now click on specific articles and they will open without a load time. While traditional outlets have tried to adapt by using many of these same methods, it’s clear that the tide is changing for these news sources like our local newspaper and national media outlets like The New York Times. One doesn’t need to turn to the “newspaper death watch” to know that newspapers are in trouble from increased competition and a changing readership.

Perhaps you’re one of the younger millennials like myself, who, until recently, never had the opportunity to pay for news. Like every generation before us, we’ve grown up reading or watching whatever our parents did — whether that was the local news, CNN or perhaps nothing at all. Unlike our predecessors, however, when we have earned the opportunity to actually pay for the news, we have been inundated with free media options. One could easily be informed without ever having to pay for a news story. The internet dramatically shifted how we consume our news on top of the websites we visited to do so.

With the change from print, radio and TV to the internet came a dramatic shift in ad revenue services. In the newspaper industry, it’s fairly obvious: The company would make money by having you pay a nominal subscription fee and make more money by selling advertisements and space in the classified ads. The goal, at least theoretically, was to write a product so well that consumers would pay for it and view advertisements inside it. “Page One: Inside the New York Times” is a documentary about the newspaper, and it shows the rollout of the paywall online. Before 2010, individuals could access the news freely, without having to pay for an article at all. In order to make up for the decreasing revenue, The Times decided that making readers pay for their articles online was paramount to their survival, but many consumers simply decided to change their news source.

This phenomenon of changing news sources came from the expectation of not having to pay for anything on the internet. Because of the expectation that consumption would be free, users pushed back against the idea that they would have to pay for a news source that could easily be found somewhere else. And this trend is growing. Individuals are increasingly turning to social media to get their news. A survey from Pew Research Center showed that the gap between people who consume news online and those who read print is closing dramatically. Another statistic from that same survey suggests this trend isn’t going anywhere either: A majority of individuals ages 18 to 29 get their news online as of 2017; in 2016 it was 50 percent.

The concern regarding the changing news landscape is how critical newspapers have been over the past 100 years. A segment on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” covered the importance of newspaper journalism. In this piece, he includes a hearing against Google’s ad revenue service in 2010, where you hear from a public official: It’s a great time to be a corrupt local politician. And the host John Oliver is right to say that a large share of coverage for the news is derived from the newspaper industry. But all over the country, newspapers are closing down or restructuring. Over the past 10 years, newspaper employment has dropped by 37 percent. This means there are fewer journalists to cover the perhaps mundane — but important — local proceedings that oversee the day-to-day workings of political life. And without that watchdog role of those proceedings, it can be reasonably assumed that corrupt political maneuvers could be happening without us ever knowing about it.

There is hope for newspapers, though. Despite these closings, online subscriptions have gone up for The Times. No one knows exactly where the news is heading if the newspaper industry collapses, but they’ve adapted before and will hopefully adapt again. I can only hope that the newspaper industry finds a way to coexist with the digital world.

Ian Leach can be reached at ileach@umich.edu.