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Newspapers are holding their own in the Internet economy.
Director of Communications World Association of Newspapers*

A vote for newspapers ©Reuters/Bianchi

The excitement over new media and their vaunted utility is easy to understand. What is more difficult to grasp is why conventional wisdom holds that the rise of digital media must mean the “decline” of newspapers, which have now been around for more than 400 years. Because the conventional wisdom is wrong.

The “death” of newspapers is an oft-repeated myth, based on false assumptions and shopworn stereotypes. Consider the facts.

Newspapers represent a US$190 billion industry globally. More than 550 million people worldwide buy a newspaper every day. Newspapers attract at least 1.6 billion readers a day.

Global newspaper circulation sales (paid-for titles) were up 2.3% in 2006, the last year for which figures are available. If free newspapers are added, circulation increased by 4.6%

Speaking of free newspapers, they represent 41 million copies a day, with two-thirds of them distributed in Europe. Many of their readers are new readers of newspapers.

Where Internet and broadband penetration are high, so too is newspaper readership. There are more than 11,200 paid-for titles worldwide.

Newspapers remain the world’s second largest advertising medium, with about 30% of the entire advertising market, exceeding the combined budget of radio, outdoor, cinema, magazines and the Internet. Combined with magazines, print is the world’s largest advertising medium with a 42% share.

More than $6 billion was invested in newspaper technology in the past 18 months. The industry has nearly two million employees worldwide.

Why the disconnect between reality and conventional wisdom?

Part of it results from too much being inferred from the gradual drop in circulations seen in some developed nations, primarily in the US and in some countries in western Europe. Some of it comes from the investment community, which discounts newspapers’ healthy profit margins–double-digit in many cases, the envy of other industries–and focuses entirely on future forecasts that are, at best, debatable.

And some of it simply comes from commentators who extrapolate their own media habits to the public at large, or have a vested interest in digital developments.

None of this is to discount the challenges. Circulation has been on a slow decline in some western countries for years. But so has the time spent with most other activities–who hasn’t complained that modern life is full of everything but time?

The media scene never stands still, but it is important to reflect on newspapers within the rapidly changing media matrix, where fragmentation and new forms of media consumption make life more challenging for the consumer.

The Internet is, by definition, fragmented. So is television, with its vast array of terrestrial, cable and satellite (and now web-based) channels. But newspapers–dear, old newspapers–continue to deliver broadly stable audiences and demographics. According to Forrester Research, 36% of regular Internet users have reduced their TV viewing, whereas 64% of regular Internet users confirm they have not changed their newspaper consumption, despite the growing market alternatives.

Newspapers are also expanding their multimedia portfolios, extending their reach–not only on the Internet, where they are already ubiquitous, but on handheld devices, telephones, print-on-demand installations in hotels, podcasts–rapidly, on any platform that emerges.

Take The Washington Post in the US–in print, a regional newspaper, with distribution on the eastern seaboard of the US. But online, it’s reachable everywhere. More people read the Post now than at any time in its history.

Or take The Guardian in the UK–or rather in cyberspace, where its growing US audience prompted it to start an on-line US edition. It’s not a paper circumscribed by geography.

No matter on what platform they appear, newspapers are still recognisable as newspapers. This is due to the nature of their content–deep, broad, informed, and selected–that is unmatched anywhere else. Think about it–news aggregators, blogs, news agencies, even the local newsreader on television, could not do their job without reading newspapers, with their incomparable staffs, setting the agenda.

Newspapers are businesses, but they’re not like other businesses. Their traditional role in democratic societies is to provide the necessary information needed to make decisions, and to act as a watchdog against corruption and other wrongdoing. That has not changed in 400 years. Not “sexy”, perhaps, but essential.

Rather than proclaiming the “death” of newspapers, we should be doing everything in our power to create conditions in which the independent press can thrive. Much depends on it.

*The World Association of Newspapers maintains a World Press Trends database and annually publishes World Press Trends, a statistical compendium of the newspaper industry in 234 countries and territories where newspapers are published. WAN, the global association of the world’s press, represents 18,000 newspapers; its membership includes 77 national newspaper associations, newspaper companies and individual newspaper executives in 102 countries, 12 news agencies and 11 regional and worldwide press groups.

©OECD Observer No 268 June 2008

UPDATE  16 JUNE 2010: Are newspapers holding their own? See latest OECD study.

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