Culture: The Debate / Global
Is the future of papers Wordle or world news?
Newspapers have survived – even in print. But is their future now dependent on word games and dating connections as much as delivering news? And should we even care about where our information comes from? Monocle’s panel debates the pressing issues.
Commentators have long wondered whether the future of the newspaper would include paper but the focus has recently shifted to the other half of the word. What if it didn’t include news? The acquisition of online game Wordle by The New York Times in January was just one example of legacy titles expanding into everything from recipes and dating sites to e-commerce and job listings. Seeking to make their digital ventures pay, many are working to extend their brand and those who aren’t have often had to protect their content behind a paywall.
It’s easy to dismiss such issues as problems for those in the boardroom but the health of newspapers’ coffers matters to everyone. From the coronavirus pandemic to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, audiences have shown that they are thirsty for trustworthy information about the world’s key events – the kind of authority that citizen journalists posting updates on social media can’t quite match.
Yet surveys show that in markets such as the UK, France and Japan, only about 10 per cent of people are willing to pay for online news. What is at stake when a newspaper folds is more than just a few jobs and a company going bankrupt: it’s social cohesion and a shared world-view. If there is an audience demanding reliable information, it is the job of editors and publishers to find ways to serve them, while ensuring their own survival. So what can they do?
The designer and strategist
A media veteran of more than 50 years, García began his career as a reporter in Miami,before becoming a newspaper designer and strategist, working on projects for The Wall Street Journal, Die Zeit and others. The author of The Story, a trilogy on news in the smartphone era, he now runs his own consultancy García Media and is a professor at Columbia Journalism School.
The weekly editor
After working for Portuguese media company Impresa for almost 30 years, Santos moved from its TV channel sic to its weekly paper Expresso, becoming deputy director in 2019. During the pandemic, the title experimented with changing its newsstand release dates; the result was strong sales for the print edition even during lockdown.
The digital specialist
Since joining Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as a trainee in 1993, Knop has served as its correspondent in Düsseldorf, New York and San Francisco, and later as its head of corporate news. In 2018 he led the paper’s efforts to rethink its approach to digital, yielding a profitable subscription-based business. He became one of the paper’s four editors in 2020.
Declining advertising revenues and circulation, the rising cost of paper, inflation – does all of this suggest that there’s only one way for the print newspaper to go? Does it have a future?
mario garcía: Yes, it does. I tell my clients and students at Columbia University that I see a role for print. I have been in this business for 50 years, so I have seen five revolutions: from typewriters to computers, from black and white to colour and so on. We are now going through what is perhaps the biggest revolution; 73 per cent of people get their news from their phones. We lean forward into our screens about 120 times a day but we lean back at certain times, in many cases to read longer pieces in print, to sink our teeth into more information.
Many newspapers won’t find it viable to print from Monday to Friday. But the paper experience will probably remain at the weekend. I live in New York; when I step out of my apartment on a Sunday morning, almost everybody has a 13-section New York Times waiting on their doormat. It’s a treat. You spend hours reading it.
I’ve just finished a tour of India, Dubai and Germany, working on three projects in those countries. A print title was part of each. I haven’t heard from any of my clients that print will die – not in India with The Hindu, not in Dubai with the Khaleej Times and not in Germany with Handelsblatt. Print won’t die. But it’s no longer the protagonist, so you have to work accordingly.
“The printed newspaper already is a niche product”
paula santos: Expresso will be 50 next January. We are a weekly so we only print the weekend edition. These days we’re on the newsstands on Fridays. That means we need to have a good angle on the news that can be read on the Friday, the Saturday and even on the Sunday. We have to offer people things in print that they can’t get anywhere else; we have to be absolutely accurate and honest. If we follow these rules, we win a sort of war. But our challenge as a newspaper is about much more than just print nowadays. Print is a part of it but we have to be realistic. Online, most people don’t read the articles; they just read the headlines. We need to give them more than headlines.
Many of the newspapers that have done better out of the transition to digital have adopted a subscription model. Is that the only way?
carsten knop: Yes, it’s the only way. The pay-per-article business model didn’t work anywhere. We had the advantage of being a subscription newspaper in print, so we always knew that the digital subscription model was the best option. And it’s paying off. It’s a big contrast to papers in the US – and I’m talking about regional newspapers there. People in Europe look at The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal but those are not [representative of] the US newspaper market, which is pretty depressing. That’s because most regional papers have shied away from a paywall.
“I have seen five revolutions: from typewriters to computers, from black and white to colour and so on”
During the pandemic, there was an idea that regional papers were on the rise again, that they could provide a model for how to restructure news media. Is a market such as Germany more resilient because it is more localised than others?
ck: It’s more resilient because all of our newspaper subscriptions, even in the regional markets, are more expensive than in the US and people are paying those prices until they die. The stickiness is higher. Will regional media be a safety net for the future? I don’t think so. If you look at some papers that regionalise too much and have local news on their front page when there are bombs falling on Kyiv, well, people don’t appreciate it.
mg: I work a lot in Germany. One major difference between the regional newspapers there and those in the US is that some of them have more than 20 daily editions. I was joking with my German clients that they have editions for audiences that are as big as the number of people who live in my building in New York. The US regional newspapers have abandoned these editions and a lot of this is due to the economy. Germany is one of the few countries that continue to do it. Editions for 3,000 people in 2022? This is unheard of in the US.
ck: That’s true right now but it won’t be sustainable.
ps: Portugal is a small country and we don’t have many regional newspapers. I can’t see them succeeding. Even the daily papers – and we have some good ones – are struggling. Let’s be serious: everyone is struggling. In print, we do our best and sometimes we succeed; Expresso is one of those cases. We sell 50,000 newspapers a week on the streets and we have 40,000 subscribers online. We still sell more in print but we are an exception and we work hard to maintain these numbers. Paper has other problems too, such as cost. The materials to print are more expensive and becoming rarer because the raw materials are more difficult to acquire.
“The success of podcasts has led us to think that we should consider other audio possibilities”
If a high-quality product and a subscription model are the only things that can make newspaper brands financially viable, will they become more elitist? Do papers have to let go of the mass market and become a niche product?
ck: The printed newspaper already is a niche product. Look at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: our printed subscription, including the Sunday paper, is about €800 a year. That’s an exclusive product for a niche market. But the reach for our original journalistic content has never been higher. Our digital subscription is €2.95 a week, or €11.80 a month. We have about 100,000 people who buy this digital product. The website is being visited by two to three million people a day, compared to the 130,000 newspapers that we sell to subscribers and at the kiosks. Print is already exclusive but our brand isn’t. It’s still more expensive than other products on the internet but it is reaching more people than it ever has before.
“What every newspaper has going for itself is its brand. How do you become essential to your reader’s life?”
ps: If being niche means not compromising on our quality and credibility, I don’t mind it. But I’m realistic and I know that we have to sell. We have to offer not only quality but also the kinds of themes that are important to people, so we become something that they want to pay for.
mg: The New York Times recently published information about where its money was coming from. The three major sources of revenue had nothing to do with news. One of its biggest sources – and I subscribe to it – was its cooking app. When you mention this to journalists, it’s a blow to their hearts. Another big source was the acquisition of Wirecutter, a product-review website. What a newspaper has going for itself is its brand and everyone in this business needs to explore this in different ways. How do you become essential to your reader’s life? As a reader, I need this product because it helps me to be more intelligent and better informed but it also tells me what I want to know about my taxes and the school where my children are going. You need to become essential beyond news and journalists have trouble understanding this.
Is the future of newspapers even about news?
ck: News will probably stay important. But The New York Times is interesting to look at when it comes to side businesses that aren’t side businesses any more. Is that the direction our publishing houses are moving in? I think so.
mg: It also has to do with how a newsroom thinks. In a modern newsroom, everything should be planned from small to large, not from large to small. That means that reporters go out thinking: how will my story appear on phones? You write the story for mobile first, then it is transferred. Everything in the newsroom is planned for a square format, either for the printed page or for the computer screen. But most people consume information on their phone. Why is the world still square, when the consumption is linear? It’s not responsive.
It begins with reporters. How would you do a story if you were thinking linearly? In newsrooms, when I explain this, there are those who ask me if we’re not dumbing things down, if we’re creating a generation of people who are stupid. Not really. If we’d had a smartphone at the beginning of time, journalistic stories would always have been written like this. Newsrooms need to understand all of this because these dynamics will lead to healthier printed newspapers.
ps: It’s a mindset and we haven’t done enough work on that. It’s about more than the way we look at the news; it’s about the way in which we communicate what we have to say. To go back to the discussion on whether we should have games, cooking apps and so on: many journalists don’t like this. But we don’t have to mingle things. We should make sure that those projects have nothing to do with the news, though they are a part of the brand. Everyone should know what their role is and things shouldn’t be mixed. Otherwise, we won’t be doing journalism in the way we should.
“We need social-media platforms to make our brand visible but they’ve disrupted our advertising business. They won’t go away, so we have to work with them”
What about the big social-media platforms? Is it possible to claw back control, or is it a David-versus-Goliath situation? Are those platforms the real hurdle in the future of newspapers online?
ck: They are a big hurdle but not the only one. And that disruption has already taken place. The outcome is ambivalent: we need them to make our brand visible but they have disrupted our advertising business. They won’t go away, so we have to work with them. Politicians should address the cartel issues and they’re doing it, especially in the EU. But what I say internally all the time is that we need a journalistic answer. We have to figure out how to make the publishing business compatible with those platforms. The rest is for lawyers and politicians. In the newsroom, we need to work with them and try to profit from them as much as we can.
“There are things that we cannot do unless the technology allows us to do it”
ps: Earlier this year we were attacked by hackers and lost everything on our sites, even the tools we use to make the newspaper. We had to go back to the old methods: we put every page of the paper on the wall. Some journalists hadn’t seen that before. We now have our website back and it has started to have good numbers again but, in terms of social media, it was bad. We can’t live without it now; it means more traffic for us. If we’re not good at it, we’ll lose to our competitors and we can’t afford that.
The cyber attack was an example of how fragile digital can be but, rather than dissuading people from relying on certain platforms, it just made you feel as though you were left behind.
ps: We tried to respond as fast as we could and everybody did a fantastic job. But there are things that we cannot do unless the technology allows us to do it. It shows how important it is for all communication enterprises to be secure. Our example is an example for everybody.
What is there left to try?
ps: Perhaps audio. The success of podcasts has led us to think that we should consider other audio possibilities.
ck: We are still wide open when it comes to the possibilities of data journalism.
mg: To extend your brand beyond news. None of what we have talked about can be accomplished without a newsroom transformation, starting with reporters.