REVIEW - Printed Media Struggle As World Entered Digital Era

BRUSSELS (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 31st March, 2020) While the COVID-19 pandemic marches on across Europe, the continent's printed media face yet another threat, as people remain quarantined in their homes, leaving magazines and newspapers to collect dust on newsstands.

This, however, is yet but one challenge, for a beleaguered industry, as more digital copies of main news titles are sold now than paper copies of the same newspapers. Take all the most prestigious titles in the world: from the New York Times to Le Monde in France, Frankfurter Allgemeine in Germany or Asahi Shimbun in Japan all sell more digital versions than actual papers, delivered each day.

Publishers like Germany's Axel Springer are shifting their focus on digital and some, like UK's the Independent in 2016 and NME in 2018, abandon print entirely.

For anyone interested in the news business, it is clear that newspapers are at death's door. Each day brings more news of layoffs, bankruptcies and closings in the print journalism industry.

The main blow came with the creation of the Internet at the end of the last century. In 1990, the World Wide Web was launched by Tim Berners-Lee. In 1992, there were already 1 million connected computers. In 1996, there were 36 million, and in 2000, the internet bubble exploded with more than 360 million connected computers. Since 2014, the level of 1 billion websites has been reached.

Today, there can be no denying that reading material is abundantly available and even more available on non-paper versions of newspapers and magazines. The press entered a resistance period, with many disappearances, bankruptcies and the regrouping of titles and press groups. We are now, probably, coming to the end of the process.

The essence of the problem, which makes it very difficult to switch completely to a digital version for new papers, is the fact that digital versions are not profitable. Money is traditionally made from advertising, much more than by subscriptions by readers, and the print version is still the one making the profit.

"The problem with the digital version on the internet is that it does not or hardly attract advertisers. The GAFA [Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple] siphoned off all potential advertising. We don't have the New York Times number of prints and the endless crisis we're going through in the press is making it very difficult for small publishers," Patrice Le Hodey, the director and owner of a French-language press group in Belgium, told Sputnik.

He added that some, like France's Le Figaro, make a profit on other ventures, such as through travel agencies, sports, casinos, etc. Nevertheless, for many publishers, advertising is still vital.

"Advertising, even decreasing, remains significant. To be profitable, the internet version must offer a subscription at a high price. The NYT [New York Times] experienced the same difficulties and curiously, it was the arrival of Donald Trump, enemy of the NYT, who gave a boost to the online version and made it roughly profitable," Le Hodey said.

However, as the generational change continues further, publishers now have to work with audiences that have no real memories of the printing press.

"There is, of course, the issue of the seduction of digital business, but to me, what changes everything, is mainly the arrival of a new generation of readers, they only read digital texts and preferably on their small smartphone screen ... News is consumed differently, with more people using mobile devices as cellular service becomes more consistent everywhere, including in rural areas," Mischael Modrikamen, the owner of the titles Le Peuple and Pourquoi Pas? told Sputnik.

The printing press might still have a future, according to Modrikamen.

"Who would have believed that today, the sale of vinyl records would be so high when music is consumed on streaming? It is a niche market, maybe glossy magazines and newspapers will be trendy in the future ... and very expensive for their few readers. Why not?" he said.

A similar view is espoused by Stockholm-based digital technology expert Lars Odlen.

"So if your digital version of the news is not fit for the smartphone screen, you lose readers! It is a simple as that. Light and short, that is what the press tries to do on their internet versions, with mixed results in the number of readers!" he told Sputnik.

As is often the case, Scandinavia is at the forefront of this development. In Sweden, cash has become a strange commodity, not used by anybody. Plastic money is the rule, the use of smartphones is among the highest in the world, and robotics and the digital economy are areas of business activity that are burgeoning in Scandinavia.

Countries like Sweden and Norway have also managed to make their digital publications somewhat profitable, according to Odlen.

"In Sweden or Norway, the digital version of newspapers start to be profitable, barely though, and they have to be creative in their way of working," Odlen said.

He recounted the experience of Aftonbladet, a Swedish daily.

"A small group of 25 journalists (out of 230) collects the articles written by the editorial staff and prepares it for the 'serious' content-rich paper version. Their readers are mostly over 65 but they still sell 60,000 copies and are profitable. But on the other side, 235,000 people have subscribed to digital news, which is double that of Frankfurter Allgemeine or Le Figaro, in a country of only 10 million inhabitants. They are mainly young people who simply don't read lengthy pieces anymore, they are the 'lost generation' for newspapers, and they get a 'light' version of the news," Odlen said.

Whether such strategy proves successful in the long-run remains to be seen, but it is certain that the news media are at a crossroads and novel approaches to publishing in the digital era will be in demand like never before.