Newspapers must change or die

Last year was not a good year for newspapers. As well as the declining advertising revenues the industry had to endure, some newspapers stopped publishing altogether. For instance, at the start of 2014, a famous metropolitan daily, Shanghai Evening Post stopped its operations. In light of this, whether the newspaper will die or not has once again entered into the spotlight.

Back in 2005, Philip Meyer, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, predicted that there will be no daily newspaper readers by the end of first quarter of 2043 in his book The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age. Many subscribe to this view. In fact, some suggest the end will come before then, as the writing seems to be on the wall for print media in the face of the unstoppable rise of the Internet and the seemingly ubiquitous ownership of smartphones.

In the United States, the advertising revenue of Google now exceeds the combined advertising revenue of all print media. Therefore, for many, there is no doubt that printed newspapers will soon be extinct and the only thing is how soon we will witness their passing.

The Internet had already brought shrinking circulations and falling advertising revenues, micro blogs and social media such as WeChat have put additional pressure on newspapers, with those who are predicting their demise saying they cannot compete with new media in terms of speed of delivery and interactiveness. For pessimists, the newspaper industry is really a "dead tree industry".

However, not everyone is so downbeat, there are still some optimists, who argue "it is only the dying paper that offers live news forever". They cite the inherent advantages of newspapers - their ability to cover stories in depth, their ease of use, and even their portability- as reasons they will survive. Especially in China, where the media industry is relatively less mature than those in the developed countries, and where most newspapers are State-owned institutions that can get a "preferential bonus" from the system. Therefore, they say the road for newspapers has not come to a dead end yet, and in the short term at least there will still be a big market for newspapers in China.

Furthermore, the optimists believe that instead of dying newspapers are being reborn in the new media age, as they transform and establish their presence on the Internet. Although some trialblazers have failed to realise their original goals, 2013 saw others progress in the online fray. Through mergers and acquisitions, Zhejiang Daily Press Group has transformed itself from a traditional newspaper to a multimedia business corporation. Jiang Guoxing, the general manager, was quoted as saying the company plans to raise the number of users from 6 million newspaper readers to 50 million regular active users in three or five years. In October, Shanghai's two leading press groups merged to creating the country's biggest newspaper company, the Shanghai United Media Group, which emphasised the importance of developing new media platforms in its general strategy last November. The China Business Journal has also started to change its traditional organizational structure from that of a newspaper to that of an Internet company, in order to ensure its survival in the future.

So a dispassionate assessment of the situation will reveal that while the situation is bad, it's not that bad. The decline of printed newspapers is an unstoppable tendency, but they still have control over their fates, because no matter how advanced the information platforms are, they will still need content.

To be masters of their own fates, newspapers should first prepare to "survive the winter". Although the content is king, the newspaper publishers need to better understand their readers as consumers, to be more specific, they need to provide high-quality and truthful content that meets the wants of their targeted customers. Not only should they keep their professional characteristics, they should learn from other websites about how to identify users' interests and how to trigger sharing.

Moreover, as they make the digital transition, newspapers should not limit themselves to being identified as traditional media outlets. The most important thing is to give valuable information to the public, which can be done in many ways by utilizing the social media tools that already exist and adopting new ones as they appear. And by segmenting their users into groups, they can target them with tailored content.

As the US writer William Arthur Ward said, "The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails."

Newspapers need to adjust their sails if they are to catch the wind of times and change readers into users and explore new business models besides "distribution and advertising" to create new revenue streams.

The author is a researcher with the Journalism Institute of Xinhua News Agency.

More about