Sunday, February 02, 2014

Where have all the newspapers gone?

You just don't see this anymore. Photo by Travis Ruse, cropped by Gallifreyan Postman at en.wikipedi
licensed under Creative Commons
It's fascinating to see a long-range social and economic transformation take place before your eyes. Particularly in as mundane a place as a city bus. 

I believe in public transit, and I've used it regularly for years. Decades, actually. Yes, I'm old. Twenty years ago, even ten, a newspaper was a common sight on buses, metros and commuter trains. In the 80s and 90, when I lived in Toronto, a newspaper was a requirement for any commuter who wanted to be taken seriously. And any professional with any kind of social ability knew to read the Globe and Mail, or if you really wanted to make an impression, the Wall Street Journal.

Today on the busses in Ottawa, I rarely see a newspaper. If I do, it's probably Metro or another of the free circulation, newswire-copying rags. And while those were somewhat popular a year ago, these days I almost never see anyone even carrying one of those. I don't even see them discarded on the bus seats anymore.

The only newspapers that seem to be hanging on or
growing their circulation are the free daily commuter
papers, like the London Evening Standard or, in
Canada, Metro and 24 Hours. And 24 Hour cancelled
its Ottawa edition last year. Photo courtesy Adam
This is just my personal view of the huge socio-economic transformation, the decline of the newspaper in the West. In Canada, the US and the UK, newspaper circulations have fallen steadily in the past five or six years, up to 30 percent or more. Newspapers are closing down or merging. Community newspapers have become nothing more than reprinters of centrally-produced fluff.

These trends may not seem new to you, but consider the size of the newspaper industry just two decades ago. The Internet was just starting to scare the traditional media industries, but newspapers and magazines, too, were fat and getting fatter. 

The recession of the early 90s killed off a lot of magazines and page counts of all print publications stated a decline that never recovered. The 2008 economic crash killed five magazines that I used to contribute to regularly. Another symptom of this transformation. 

And its name is ...
The Internet, of course, but particularly, mobile communications. The snide comeback of the print professional to the Internet used to  be that paper is both a reliable storage and display medium, and it's portable — unlike computers. 

And then came the iPad.
On the bus today, I see three people reading books — yes, real paper books, and one of them is a hardcover — and, no surprise, five or six e-readers like Kobos and Kindles. Oh, yes, and my iPad. 

Then there are people looking at their smart phones. Some of them are playing games, but most are going through emails or messages or tweets.

This is usual in 2014. It's a surprise to see anyone reading a paper.

What does it mean?
It means that, at least for commuters from western Ottawa today, the newspaper is irrelevant. Or at least not essential, not like it was two decades ago.

And given newspaper circulation statistics, I suspect the same is true in other modern cities in first world nations.

What do we do?
As communications professionals, we have to recognize that the market has voted for mobile communications and has dropped the newsprint medium, at least for daily news and the kind of specialized information that magazines are good at delivering.

So we have to start to adapt our communications to fit the demands of mobile communications technology — and more to the point, to the audience that uses it.

This is the format we have to work with today. Get used
to it!
Whether we produce fiction, news, non-fiction, technical reports or whatever, we need to be aware that the reader is experiencing it through a small screen — a fairly restrictive medium.

As a writer concerned with craft and the beauty of language, I'm not thrilled about reducing all writing to bullet points and headings. But the reality is that audiences demand, shorter texts, broken into easily consumed chunks. The buzzword today is "consumable information."

And using graphics and motion video really boosts attention, circulation and retention of information. While it may irk you that a twelve-year-old's cat video gets more play than your world-saving treatise, gimmicks have always been effective in any medium.

Look ahead
In ten more years, there will still be newspapers. But they'll be smaller in size and circulation. 

It will be interesting to see what e-books will be like. Will they all include multimedia? I find it hard to believe that motion and graphics will not be standard in text communications.

Nothing is going away. We still have radio. It's just been transformed by all the media that came after it. 
We have another learning slope ahead of us.

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