Media Perspective: Newspapers have cause for cheer in the midst of gloom

If the decline in traditional media has been like the gentle slope of a river, heading for the sea, then the recent global economic meltdown has introduced a vertiginous waterfall. It's not changed the overall direction, or even the final outcome, but it has cranked up the pace.

We're seeing this most dramatically in newspapers, especially newspapers in the US. Great journalistic institutions are in bankruptcy or close to it. Others are scaling back their publishing schedule. All of which has caused a massive outbreak of wailing, gnashing of teeth and, of course, punditry. So, given the fact that our own beloved newspapers aren't immune to these difficulties, I thought I'd point you in the direction of one of the smarter pieces written in the past few days.

You'll find it at www.stevenberlinjohnson.com. It's entitled: "Old growth media and the future of news." Mr Johnson makes the point that, while the business of news and newspapers has been under attack in the past few years, the impact of news organisations and the amount, range and vitality of news we can all access has grown massively. How many of us watched president Obama's speech about race in its entirety on YouTube? Quite a few. Would we have seen that ten years ago? Probably not.

We have more access to more news, with more specialised, expert and global reporting and opinion than anyone's ever had. Online editions mean that newspapers are more widely read than they've ever been, which has helped prove the quality of the British newspaper industry. It's just that they're not making much money from it. Mr Johnson is optimistic that we will find ways to support this flourishing of media, but he points out that there'll be a lot of hardship first.

Newspapers will fail. Journalists, publishers, ad sales people and printers will suffer, and there'll be outcry as overseas bureaus and investigative reporting teams are closed down. And he says this is also "bad news because it's going to distract us from the long-term view: we're going to spend so much time trying to figure out how to keep the old model on life support that we won't be able to help invent a new model that actually might work better for everyone".

Maybe we media and communications folk should start to help invent that new model too. Some of the business strategies of the past will survive. Rich individuals will continue to support newspapers like they support football clubs. Public money is likely to intervene at some point. Charities and NGOs might get involved too. But there will always be room for brand owners to find new ways to support and partner with news organisations. Maybe we'd better do that quickly, before they're all gone.

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