Newspapers not dead yet – just not making much money

Everyone trumpeting the death of traditional media would be surprised by the latest Roy Morgan Research readership report for Australian newspapers for the year to September 2017.

The newspaper proprietors have their own measure through NewsMedia Works, which used to be called Newspaper Works but changed its name in 2016, suggesting a bit of a delay in confronting reality. The blog has always liked the Morgan figures – mainly because the NewsMedia Works reports are implausibly relentlessly upbeat given the industry’s problems – while the Morgan figures are rather drier.

First, the good news: according to Roy Morgan more than 15.5 million Australians “read or access newspapers in an average seven day period either in print, or via website of app.” Moreover, three out of four Australians are consuming magazines across print and online although looking at magazines in barber shops and supermarkets the blog doubts the extent to which this enlightens any of the readers. Second, the not so good news: the newspaper cross platform figures are down 1.7 per cent from a year ago. Third, the bad news: the news media is still finding it hard to make money – of which more later.

The SMH is the most widely read Australian newspaper with a cross-platform audience of a bit over four million followed by the Daily Telegraph and the Herald-Sun. The report says “7.7 million Australians read print newspapers, including nearly 5.5 million who read weekday issues, 4.6 million Saturday editions and 4.2 million Sunday titles.”

If you throw in free to air TV the decline of mass market reach by newspapers and free to air TV is – like reports of Mark Twain’s death – ‘exaggerated’.

But the problem remains – how to make money out of mainstream news media? The New York Times and the Washington Post (partly thanks to Trump) are building digital readerships which now generate more revenue than ads do. According to The Economist (28 October 2017) the success of the NYT and Post comes from a flexible approach to a metered paywall which provides a number of free articles a month after which visitors are asked to pay – a process which “have created funnels to suck in customers” This is now more commonplace in the industry although News Corp still tends to favour hard paywalls.

The Trump phenomenon is an indicator of something else as well – readers are looking for significant content. Being in Canada recently the blog was interested to note that The Toronto Star is making a good fist of long read journalism and, while most attention has been paid to the recent re-design of The Age, that paper is also publishing more long form journalism. Great if it’s by Adele Ferguson or a few others but sometimes a bit boring from the look of the first week or so of the experiment. Quality papers, nevertheless, do make a difference and it’s probably no coincidence that Australia’s three worst newspapers (Adelaide Advertiser, Courier Mail and West Australian) have suffered significant cross-platform audience falls although The Mercury, The Australian Financial Review and the Newcastle Herald have had big or bigger drops.

Of course, ever since news was invented practitioners have always faced problems from innovation. In the modern sense of news the first crisis came for the manuscript providers of news in the centuries before the invention of printing made possible the 17th century advent of what we think of as newspapers. Andrew Pettegree – who did much to deconstruct the relationship between the invention of printing and the emergence of Martin Luther by illustrating how Luther drove printing profits which underpinned other printing initiatives – points out in The Invention of News that “the birth of newspapers did not immediately transform the news market. Indeed, for at least a hundred years newspapers struggled to find a place in what remained a multi-media business. The dawn of print did not supress earlier forms of news transmission. Most people continued to receive much of their news by word of mouth.” Of course, for really important news – the sort that affected markets and profits – the distribution of manuscript news by bankers such as the Fuggers remained critically important.

Pettegree also provides an interesting sidelight on technological change and news media. Generally printing has been regarded as the first significant technological advance in the news business. He points out that there was an earlier technological development which enabled news to be distributed more effectively – the creation of postal networks from the beginning of the 16th century. Given the occasional problems getting The Age on Saturday morning, when papers get delivered to the distributor too late, is an indicator of the distribution networks’ significance.

While bankers and others had distribution networks for their manuscript news services the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian, created the spine for the system when he established an imperial post in the 15th century and allowed some people and organisations (the Fuggers again) to get privileged access to the system. But the big change came in the early 16th century when Charles V gave an exclusive contract to the Taxis family to create an effective, regular imperial postal network. Once given the right to take letters from private clients the Taxis family became rich. And if you think Ahmed Fahour did well out of Australia Post it was nothing compared to the Taxis family as a stroll past their palace in Regensburg Germany or a quick Google search for Elizabeth Von Thurn und Taxis shows.