IF NEWSPAPERS WERE reporting about anything else, the headlines would be telling of the apocalypse to come. But journalists have a habit of failing to report bad news about themselves and are particularly inept at revealing the serious difficulties of the organisations that pay their wages. The fact is newspapers, which grew fat on reporting the misfortunes of others, go to great pains to avoid telling their readers the truth about their own woes. The Australian Financial Review in 2015 reported to great fanfare that its weekend paper’s circulation had improved by 1 per cent to 62,643 over the 2014 June quarter. That was certainly true, but the real story was buried: sales of the paper’s main editions, Monday to Friday, were in terrible trouble, down 6.5 per cent, to just 57,243 a day. The AFR even tried to spin that collapse with the argument the newspaper’s rate of decline was slower than that of its main rival, the Australian. Finally the story boasted that a ‘strong growth in digital readership’ was ‘largely offsetting the decline in the print audience’. It said nothing about the collapse in print advertising revenue which would mirror its collapse in readership, and which no amount of clicks on its online pages could replace. As Australia’s only business daily, if the Fin can’t be straightforward about the problems of its ‘business’ model, what hope is there that other members of the print media will take the lead and be honest with its readers?
The fact that newspapers put the best gloss on their circulation numbers is nothing new. History is full of colourful stories of brutal battles, as editors fought to win over a rival’s readers. What’s different today is that no one is winning the new circulation battle. All newspapers are losing readers. The problem for the newspaper industry is that, as circulation continues to slide, the ‘rivers of gold’ – classified advertising – are also fast drying up. Much of that advertising has migrated to websites, where advertisers get targeted exposure to a desired demographic for a fraction of the cost that newspapers once charged. Falling revenue coupled with catastrophic readership decline, as newspapers give content away free online, has caused a structural king hit on the industry: thousands of journalists have lost their jobs; newspapers have shut and information has been ‘commodified’ as journalists shape their news coverage to win the chaotic battle for attention on the internet.
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