Raja Mitra

Jun 11, 2017

5 min read

As Digital Media Grows in Terms of Revenue and Reach, What is the Future of Print Media?

A little over twenty years ago, The New York Times entered the Internet age with a sense of optimism so naive that looking back might break your heart. Times reporter Peter H. Lewis stated, “With its entry on the Web, The Times is hoping to become a primary information provider in the computer age and to cut costs for newsprint, delivery and labour.”

The Times wasn’t the first major daily newspaper to launch a website. The Boston Globe, then owned by the New York Times Co., had unveiled its Boston.com service — featuring free content from the Globe and other local news organizations — just a few months earlier. But the debut of NYTimes.com sent a clear signal that newspapers were ready to enlist in the digital revolution.

Fast-forward to 2017, and it is clear that the newspaper business is currently merely a shell of its former self. Far from cutting newsprint and delivery costs, newspapers remain utterly reliant on their shrunken print editions for most of their revenues,

For many newspapers globally, 2015 was, in many senses, a recession year. Both circulation numbers and ad revenues were adversely affected for quite a few newspapers. Digital advertising revenue fell 2% in 2015. It’s just that non-digital advertising revenue fell more, dropping 10% during that same year. In 2014, the previous year, newsroom employment also declined 10%, more than in any other year since 2009. The newspaper workforce has shrunk by about 20,000 positions, or 39%, in the last two decades.

All this adds up to what has been known for some time now: the newspaper industry’s business model is wrecked. No doubt cost-cutting on an even greater scale than has been apparent for the past decade, will be the action initiated by many groups to pull themselves out of this abyss that they are staring into.

The print media in India is also fighting for its future mostly. For long considered one of the four pillars of democracy, newspapers are today under siege. A number of factors outside their control have come together to deal them a body-blow.

India’s broadband reach is a pathetic 7%, lagging behind most other countries in Asia. Its average broadband speed, at 4.1 Mbps, as per the recent Akamai report, places it in 105th position globally. While there is a marked skew, compared to global percentages, in terms of accessing the internet primarily on mobile, with 77% of the urban population and 92% of the rural population doing so, smartphone penetration has lagged behind many other countries with 22.4% of the population adopting it so far. In a country which has 23 officially recognized languages, regionalization and localization of content, including news, in many of these languages has been on a slow track. These are the primary factors which account for India still being one of the last bastions of print media globally.

There is already blood on the floor of one of the last bastions of print media in the world. Major national dailies in India are shutting editions, laying off staff, slashing costs, and freezing expansions and investments. Smaller papers have been doing this for several years now. Worse is to come if taxes are raised under the GST regime. India’s demonetisation exercise, effected in early November 2016, had an adverse effect on print media which is likely to continue well beyond one quarter.

The implementation of the latest wage board recommendations has bled a number of print companies badly after the previous government accepted the board’s report and forced newspapers to raise salaries by 45–50% along with arrears — so that blue collar staff including office boys, clerks and drivers in certain scales are now paid more than three times what they earn in most other industries in India. Hitherto profitable large publishers went into the red because of high wage board payouts that were unsustainable. India’s largest news agency, the not-for-profit Press Trust of India (PTI), has been similarly affected as a 173% rise in staff costs in 2013–14 over the previous year led to a sharp spike in operating losses, which have, since then, continued to remain high.

Demonetisation has wreaked havoc on the print media. The Indian newspaper business is heavily dependent on advertising revenue, which contributes between 70–80% of its total revenue. Prior to demonetisation, this was, in any case, showing little growth in the last few years — 4–6% compared to TV’s 15–18% and digital’s 35–40%. But demonetisation has compounded the situation by squeezing spends across almost all categories of advertisers.

Globally, disruptive technologies like AI are entering the domain of news and digital media. New apps like Banjo claim to be tapping a new pulse on the world by mining social media, search trends, geo-location data, and other digital signals to produce new forms of breaking news instead of waiting for humans to figure out something is important and start sharing on SM networks like Facebook and Twitter. Other media ventures are tapping into AI to build stories when events are based around simple facts and human interpretation isn’t required.

Two years ago, the Los Angeles Times became the first major outlet to report on an earthquake — almost instantaneously — with a bot. Today, companies like Automated Insights and Narrative Science are powering the production of millions of auto-generated ‘articles’, such as personalized recaps for fantasy sports fans. A similar metrics-based formula can be used to recap a customer’s stock portfolio performance.

That said, the reason many believe (and AI companies promise) that a writer’s job is still safe is because these stories are purely factual, basically converting raw data into language. Human writers could eventually focus on more complex writing for analysis, opinion, or humour — the layers of news that attract readers. But this is where AI researchers hold up a finger and say, “Yet!”

Over the last five years, processing power and huge corpuses of teaching data have given computers the ability to detect emotions and moods. Soon, possibly, they will be able to recognize a sideline scuffle or a player’s shift in attitude. Combine that with sensors gathering crowd reactions, the movement and changes in velocity for players and passes, historical statistics that provide context for the game and a player’s performance — and now AI is starting to encroach on analysis as well. Were this scenario to come good in the future, many human writers will find their tasks taken over and being done with greater elan and efficiency by machines and algorithms.

While the print media is not likely to be snuffed out any time soon, business models will have to be rethought and stringent cost controls will become an absolute necessity. Humans, including writers, will find themselves getting edged out gradually but surely in the process. With the advent of AI, journalism, like quite a few other professions, will be firmly placed in the sunset category.