Newspapers are raging against the dying of the light

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First, to state my bias: I love media, new and old.  I love journalists and their passion for words, nose for a story, tenacity and inquisitiveness, and healthy cynicism of PR folk.

If one’s first love is somewhat idealised, my love affair with newspapers is a particularly personal one. Much to my distress, the newspaper industry has endured a torrid decade defined by declining circulations and commentators sermonising on its demise.

I was therefore encouraged to learn of a recent survey conducted by international research company RAM, on behalf of Newsbrands Ireland, suggesting that newspapers are in fact the most trusted source of news among Irish consumers. 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.  In an era of fake news, readers are gravitating back to media titles they know and trust.  Furthermore, RAM’s research supports what many have long argued: the best journalism and reporting continues to find its home in newspapers.

Thankfully, this recognition of quality print journalism is beginning to manifest itself in a number of different ways, which, when combined, may suggest that the newspaper industry is not in terminal decline, but rather slowly navigating its way through a period of experimental transition.

What’s even more encouraging to see is that despite many people predicting an inevitable race to the bottom, it is quality journalism that is leading this revival. This revival is based around one universal principle: people will pay for a quality product. Who knew?

In this case, ‘quality’ means expert analysis, trust and editorial accountability.  At a time when we have never had access to so much information, these three pillars have taken on renewed importance.  

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Changing habits

According to Gloria Origgi in Fast Company (April 2018), “the greater the amount of information that circulates, the more we rely on so-called reputational devices to evaluate it”.  In effect, this means we’re now moving from an information age to a reputational age, in which information will only have value if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by those we trust. 

For newspapers, two of their most valuable assets are their good name and the historical trust they have nurtured over generations.  While consumers today can get breaking news from any number of platforms, trustworthy sources are less readily available.  

Brands are also quick to recognise the value of third-party validation from reputable newspaper titles. As a result, they are increasingly redirecting investment toward developing brand narratives that generate traction with quality newspaper titles and stand up to the scrutiny of even the most grizzled of journalists.

Readers get this, too.  This doesn’t mean that they are going to reverse a ten-year trend and start buying from newsstands again.  Instead, they are increasingly consuming their traditional newspaper titles via non-traditional platforms. 

Digital subscriptions to the New York Times and Washington Post have soared since the 2016 US Presidential Election.  The Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and The Economist are all thriving again.  In 2016, The Guardian announced its intention to ‘grow reader revenues’ via voluntary donations.  At the time this strategy was met with raised eyebrows, but today 500,000 people around the world voluntarily contribute an average of £5 per month.

In Ireland, The Irish Times, Irish Independent, Times Ireland and Sunday Business Post continue to experiment with new means of growing their audiences (digital subscriptions, social, podcasting etc) and converting this trust, provenance and editorial accountability into new revenue.

For PR, this is good news.  At a most basic level, we need media to give us a platform to tell our clients' stories, but at a more fundamental level, we need a healthy media that can hold business and government accountable, dissect a story, challenge the narrative, and question the details.

This period of experimental transition will likely continue for some time to come.  Sadly for old romantics like me, we will inevitably see more newspaper titles fall by the wayside—but in the last twelve months, we have seen enough chinks of light break through the doom and gloom to suggest newspapers still have a long future ahead of them.