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Are Newspapers Dying (and Should We Care)?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In most of the post-industrial democracies of the global north there is a growing worry about the fate of newspapers. Many are dying or in trouble, including some venerable titles. Agonizing essays are being written about all this, and the issue is dominating more and more seminars on the future of democracy. It appears that the impact of the internet and the changing news consumption habits of citizens are having a deleterious impact on the finances of newspapers. People are worried about what will happen to democracy if the great quality newspapers - purveyors supreme of the best news reports, analysis and opinions- were to disappear.

The pessimists argue that these trends with continue and that newspapers are going to die off. The optimists argue that we are simply witnessing a transition from an old business model of how to package the news and build profitable organizations around that to a new one yet unknown. The optimists have two compelling arguments that they offer. The first is that in the same societies in which newspapers are under threat more and more citizens are well-educated, many with college degrees. That suggests that there is an audience for quality news analysis, features, investigative reports, superb punditry and so on. The second is that  there is every reason to believe that citizens will always need intermediation in the information/news business. Digital technology comes with an overwhelming abundance of information; citizens will always need those who sort through the deluge, pick items worthy of attention, package, aggregate and present  these items in compelling ways.

I am a cautious optimist on this matter. That is because I take a long view of communication technologies and their impact.  My view is that information and communication technologies (ICTs) are not at all new. Anything that helps amplify the human voice is an ICT. From the bullhorn to the gong that town criers use to the printing press, ICTs have been coming into human societies and enriching human communication. Then came radio and television, and now the internet. And each time we are told that the hot new ICT is going to kill all the communication media that came before it. Truth is, that never happens. You have a transition period then the new ICT settles into a new mix.  So I think a painful transition period is on. Right now digital technology is having a tremendous impact on human communication. Eventually, however, just as water finds its level, that technology will find its level. New forms will emerge,and new business models too.

Luckily, for once, I am not aware that newspapers face an existential threat in developing countries. In fact, in many societies they are thriving. The problem they face the most - apart from rampaging authoritarian regimes - is low circulation. And the reasons for this are usually low levels of education and widespread poverty. You have to be able to read to read a newspaper...obviously! And newspapers are expensive to produce, so in poor countries they are not cheap. As a result, in many countries newspapers are elite products. But that does not mean that they are not important. Newspapers are crucial players in the process that leads to the setting of the public agenda in every society. They don't need mass circulation to be hugely influential.

Photo Credit: Flickr User FredArmitage