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A long, slow slog, with no one coming to the rescue

“Much of the news currently published online is simply not worth paying for. Some of it is hardly worth our fleeting attention, let alone hard-earned cash.”

2019 will be another terrible year for the business of news, and journalists will have to face the harsh reality that no one will come to their rescue — not benign billionaires, not platform companies, and not policymakers.

Throughout 2019, we’ll see the continued decline of already much-diminished revenues from print (which still account for over 90 percent of newspaper revenues globally), an erosion of television revenues in mature markets, digital advertising still dominated by platforms (with new entrants like Amazon increasing pressures on publishers), and in most cases only incremental progress in growing reader revenues.

Furthermore, creditors and investors alike will lose patience with news media, whether legacy (as seen with Johnston Press) or digital-born (witness the sale of the remains of Mic and greatly reduced valuation of Vice), unwilling to risk more money on a digital content bubble that is still clearly not sustainable based on current business models.

And with the spread of cheap smartphones, these challenges are increasingly truly global, including in markets like China and India, where many news organizations thought they had years, if not decades, to adapt to digital.

So for most news media, 2019 will mean less money, more cuts.

Advertising revenues will be under immense pressure, and to fund independent professional news production it will therefore be increasingly important to do the kinds of journalism that people are willing to pay for (or support directly through donations and memberships).

For most news organizations, this is a fundamental shift, far more demanding than simply putting up a paywall and hoping people will subscribe. Much of the news currently published online is simply not worth paying for. Some of it is hardly worth our fleeting attention, let alone hard-earned cash.

The shift thus has to be about better and more distinct journalism in an incredibly competitive battle for attention, about a greater focus on what readers actually value, about organizations and technologies built around serving them efficiently, and perhaps most importantly about a commitment to the long haul — to making the changes necessary to winning paying readers one at a time, keeping them, accumulating them.

Success will not come easily or quickly. It will take years, just as it did in the past. As the old models continue to crumble around us and new ones emerge only in fits and starts, it’s easy to forget (but important to remember) how long it took to build a mass business of paid news in print.

Take the United States, where the commercial revolution that moved newspapers beyond being organs for narrow cultural, mercantile, and political elites and into being truly mass media took more than half a century. It was really only after the combination of popular journalism, growth in advertising, and the development of linotype printing that newspapers build mass (paid) circulation between the 1880s and the 1930s.

Mass paid print circulation thus did not appear overnight, but took decades of hard work and constant editorial, commercial, and technological innovation.

The business that produced has now been in structural decline since the 1950s and it is never coming back. We cannot expect to build a new one overnight. It will take years, it will be hard, and many will fail.

But we have to build a new business. At best, the alternative is asset stripping, continued cost-cutting, and gradual descent into irrelevance. At worst, the alternative is news media that are captured by the state or become instruments of those who can afford to subsidize them for ideological or self-interested reasons.

If we want to build a new sustainable business of digital news in this challenging environment, journalists will have to be at the forefront. That is why 2019 should be about money, money, money (and the editorial, organizational, and technological investments necessary to retool the business of news).

Journalists cannot build this business alone (and don’t need to — there is much to be gained from collaboration, from sharing, and from joint ventures), but they need to play a leading role. No one cares more, no one has more at stake, and no one is better positioned to build new businesses around journalistic values, editorial independence, and the timeless aspiration to seek truth and report it.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and professor of political communication at the University of Oxford.

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