Concern about the future of print journalism is not a recent phenomenon. Its impending demise has been lamented since the onset of the television age in the 1950s.
Nonetheless, the rapidity of change within the industry which has taken place since the turn of the 21st century is difficult to overstate. Major publications such as the Daily Mail and The Times have seen their print circulation halve between 2000 and 2018, while The Guardian managed to sell barely a quarter.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the arrival of the Internet. Its ascendancy traces a path which runs parallel to the collapse of print media – its user base grew from 300 million users in 2000 to five billion in March 2021.The internet revolutionised society’s relationship with news. Suddenly, events could ricochet across the globe in seconds, conveyed through new social media platforms, news websites, and apps. The BBC and Sky came out with news apps which contained blogs and articles which updated as stories developed in real-time, while new social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram allowed ordinary people to communicate and record events as they unfolded. The Internet’s ability to connect individuals across the world undermined the need for a middleman, which dealt a blow to the monopoly on news dissemination once enjoyed by print and TV.
Not only did the internet reduce the market for print media in and of itself, but it also precipitated a cultural re-wiring across much of Western society which was much less receptive to journalism designed for a wider audience. Social media sites have developed increasingly sophisticated algorithms, designed to uniquely tailor user experience, leading to charges that increasingly resemble “echo chambers” where individuals are exposed to opinion-slanted news which aline with their own views. Additionally, the cultural shift perpetrated by the internet has rendered our attention spans shorter than ever, and news blogs and social media profiles have adjusted by making their headlines as outrageous as possible. The pandemic accelerated these existing cultural and technological trends. The lockdown meant that avid print readers were often unable to purchase newspapers, and the societal shift towards all things virtual extended to news consumption. In March 2021, the Daily Mail sold fewer than one million print editions, whilst The Guardian saw sales fall 40,000 below pre-pandemic levels.
Young people are the drivers of this change. According to an Ofcom survey for 2020, a majority of those aged 16-24 claimed that their main source of news came from social media and other internet sources. Speaking to students at the University of Edinburgh, many claimed that their sources of news headlines were the BBC News app and social media apps such as Snapchat. A few reported reading digital newspapers such as The Guardian – but none consumed news in print.
Adjusting to the digital landscape has been key to the success of many traditional print titles. Indeed, while sales have dipped, readership for many publications is at an all time high. Between 2019 and 2020, The Times reported that its digital subscriptions had risen by 19%, and in the same year The Guardian made its first profit in two decades, 55% of which came from advertising on its digital platforms. Both have come out with apps following the format adopted by the BBC, with stories updated continuously throughout the day.
Similarly, periodicals like The Spectator and The New Statesman have recently reported record high levels of readership across their digital and print platforms. It seems many have taken on board the need to adapt or die.
Today’s media landscape is one characterised more by breaking news notifications and viral videos spread on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, than it is one of print newspapers. But the success by many titles in moulding to the digital era has meant that their overall readership is the highest it’s been in several decades. If the extent of societal transformation appears at times frenzied and hard to keep up with, one thing is clear – the direction of change is one moving inexorably and irreversibly away from print.
Editor’s Note: The Student was also impacted by the issues discussed here, though having said that, we’re delighted to announce that we will be back in print!
Image Courtesy of Jon S, via Flickr