Chris Barton 's Opinion

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton: Print journalism - game set and match?

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Whither print journalism? Photo / Thinkstock
Whither print journalism? Photo / Thinkstock

Whither print journalism? It's a question that's been asked ever since the mid 90s. That's when the internet began having serious impact on households, largely thanks to Tim Berners-Lee who gave us the killer app known as World Wide Web. In our house it started an argument that's yet to be resolved - me saying this was bigger than the printing press and she saying: pah, the printing press was far more significant.

Today, judging by the inordinate amount of time she spends on her iPad mini, I reckon it's game set and match. She still says pah, pointing out all it does is make it easier for her to read more print.

I came face to face with the business arguments about print-versus-online when I worked for National Business Review as content manager for its pioneering website in the late 90s. The mid-eighties slogan "information wants to be free" was back in vogue and I remember rather arrogantly telling publisher Barry Colman he had to publish online or perish.

Colman bluntly replied that no he didn't - it was his content and he could do as he pleased. At the time he chose to enter the great experiment, but a few years later he pulled the plug.

His reason in 1999: "We were expecting at least 2000 subscribers by now - we've ended up with 200." Colman was always a reluctant internet - publisher troubled from day one by the thought of giving content away for free. Today NBR is very much back online, standing out as the first news site in New Zealand to operate successfully with a soft paywall, where some content remains free but other content must be paid for. The site has around 3000 individual online subscribers plus 150 corporate subscribers, indicating the paywall model, while hardly generating riches, may be viable in New Zealand.

Meanwhile the Listener has put up a paywall, Fairfax is about to introduce paywalls for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia and rumours are rife that the paywall is nigh for New Zealand's major newspapers.

Internationally, print publishers are all on a similar path beginning with the The Times and the Sunday Times in the UK in 2010 and followed more recently by the Sun and the Telegraph.

In the US about a third of all daily newspapers have either moved to the soft paywall model so successfully championed by the New York Times or signalled they will do so very soon. Other publications, such as Newsweek, have announced digital-only plans while reports that the Guardian is considering a similar route are apparently premature.

It's against this background that Science Media Centre manager Peter Griffin set off on his big coast-to-cost road trip across the United States - "visiting some of the hotspots of US innovation in media and journalism", as part of a Fulbright-Harkness Fellowship.

Such trips have become a rite of passage - a modern day equivalent of the grand tour for media executives. Countless mangers and editors from both APN and Fairfax have travelled to both the US and the UK looking for the holy grail of how to make online pay its way. Invariably they come back with the same answer "buggered if we know". Griffin, however, has broken new ground by talking publicly about what he discovered in his excellent Future News blog and on his return home.

He begins with a familiar starting point. "Journalism is really in turmoil at the moment." It's a turmoil about which most outside of the industry are blissfully unaware. Griffin points to recent events, such as the closure of the International Herald Tribune, Time Warner getting out of the magazine business and the New York Times, despite now having 668,000 digital subscribers, laying off 30 senior reporters and closing down its environment desk. Closer to home, there's the shutting down of the public service TVNZ 6 and 7 last year, the change in tone of TV current affairs (Seven Sharp and 3rd Degree) and the Herald moving to a compact format. "We're looking for shorter, sharper, socially integrated news coverage," says Griffin. "That's exactly what we are being served up."

Short and sharp leaves an opportunity for online to exploit with quality, context and analysis. Griffin's first lesson from his grand tour - "It's time to pay up online" - comes with a caveat. "If you are expecting people to pay for something they have been getting for free for the last decade, it's got to be really good, because there will still be free news out there - news you can get anywhere from a news aggregator."

Therein is the disruptive sting consumers may be willing to pay, but they are going to be promiscuous in their consumption, gorging from multiple sources - news sites, blogs, twitter and various aggregators to satisfy their reading needs, preferably for a fixed weekly amount. In such a world, traditional, single-source news and information will struggle to hold sway.

His second lesson is more alien: "We need to tap our wealthy." It comes from seeing the rise of new media organisations like ProPublica and the Centre for Public Integrity which, largely funded by philanthropic foundations, are filling the in-depth, investigative and watchdog role that struggling news organisations are, increasingly, abandoning. It's an area Griffin knows well, having stepped into just such a void the dearth of decent science converge in New Zealand - when he started the government-funded Science Media Centre in 2008. As he points out, government-funded, public service media such as Radio New Zealand is vital for the functioning of democracy in a world where traditional journalism is in such trouble. But New Zealand philanthropists also need to do their bit.

Griffin remains positive the media can adapt and survive the challenges it faces, and his analysis - including further lessons about data journalism, the journalist-as-entrepreneur, and the importance of the hyperlocal provides one of the best glimpses of the future of media to date.

It also leaves some worrying questions. Could a Fourth Estate that's abdicated its watchdog, investigative role - its raison d'etre to hold power to account - ever get its mojo back? Or will the institution gradually become more and more disempowered until it ceases to exist? Will the audience-led, social media groupthink that replaces it - increasingly measured by the quantity of page views, Facebook likes and trending on Twitter - be sufficient to speak truth to power?

Chris Barton

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton is a freelance writer with 28 years experience in newspapers and magazines. He's been writing about technology since 1986, was the founding editor of New Zealand PC World and has won numerous media awards, including, in 2009, journalism's top prize, the Wolfson Press Fellowship to Cambridge. He has a Master of Architecture, teaches part time at the Auckland School of Architecture and is an architecture critic, winning, in 2014, the Canon Media Awards Reviewer of the Year.

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