Looking into the future of newspapers

Last week there was a lot of discussion about Ross Dawson who predicted the time of death of the newspaper in several countries. Piet Bakker devoted a blog to it as did Trouw (there are probably many more sources so let me know in the comments). It’s important to know when the newspapers get extinct, so then we know when to have cleared our agenda’s to go to the funeral or at least have found a new job.

All kidding aside, we love predictions (especially weather forecasts)  and we need them. However, it’s one of the most difficult things to do. All predictions are uncertain. However some are more uncertain than others. Having no additional data, predicting the end of the newspaper is similar to looking into a crystal ball, humming some unclear sounds while burning incense: rubbish in gets rubbish out. Then again, if one would actually have additional data things brighten up. What data for instance? Well, first of all the hard data the publishers already have, even the data we researchers have little unconditional access to. For instance,  (1) detailed subscription data (paid, non-paid, discounts) (2) financial data (costs,  revenues), (3) marketing strategies  (4) changes in population composition, (5) competitors’ actions and developments, and (6) autonomous developments such as general economic growth and level of unemployment, but also technological developments. Some other suggestions have been made in comments on Piet Bakker’s and Ross Dawson´s blogs, such as the writing off of printing presses, the culture of reading for each country. All more or less relevant to be taken into account.

The prediction made by Piet Bakker (i.e. time series analysis) are, in my opinion, equally uncertain (see my posted comment). Especially because he used very little observations (six years) to predict far into the future (40 years). So, the further away the prediction is the more uncertain the prediction is. Not only that, a possible bias in a short term estimate is most likely increased the further away the prediction is, as such biasing the final prediction. Also, I suspect there will be an excellerated decrease in subscriptions at the end, because newspaper publisher (or the banks) will see the end is near and will pull the plug before they loose even more capital.

There are alternative approaches to the moving averages approch, though. The first one is using multiple time series, where the dependent is the number of subscriptions and the others are the independent ones (some of which are listed above). Alternatively, a system dynamics model could be developed taking account of feedback loops, because every action may have positive effects on the dependent variable (in this case the number of subscriptions) but can have an effect on the causes as well in the future. These complex problems are called messy (cf. Vennix, 1996) because of the large numbers of unknowns. There is alo a more qualitative version called group model building. This used when hard data do not exist. In this approach experts from different background are set around the table and chart the problem at hand. Then different scenario’s are explored to foresee possible futures. Subsequently, the aim is to develop a business strategy that is robust for many possible futures. These approaches have been used for instance by Shell and the Dutch government. I’m not sure it’s too late for publishers to undertake such an exploration, what what I hope they’ve learned that it’s best to prepare for the worst case scenario when you can. For the publishers that would have been sometime in the eighties of the last century. Then again, like quiting smoking, it’s never too late.

On a final yet important note, and this may be depressing for the publishers, the readers of physical newspapers may be a dying breed. It’s in large part a generations issue. People who grew up with (their parents) having a newspaper at home are the ones that were more likely to have a newspaper subscription as well. Until the Internet took of in the late nineties of the last century: youngsters that grew up in the age of the Internet are less likely to subscribe. A similar thing happended with television: young people that grew up with only bublic broadcasting continued watching public broadcasting while youngsters that grew up with commercial television as well didn’t watch public broadcasting. So, it seems inevitable to see newspapers as we know them disappear. If they survive it’ll be not in this fashion. In the technical sense, no medium has ever really disappeared, it’s function merely changed. This is likely to happen to the newspaper as well. What is more important is how journalism will evolve the coming decades. But that’s an entirely different discussion.

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Maurice Vergeer

I am Maurice Vergeer, working at Communication Science department of the Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands.