Fewer adverts, pages and sections – that was one academic’s prediction for the world of newspapers.
The press is entering a period of decline, said Robert G Picard, director of the Media Management and Transformation Centre in Sweden.
Picard presented research at the Future of Newspapers conference in Cardiff that showed direct mail – and not the internet – is the biggest threat to advertising revenue.
With advertising growth failing to keep pace with inflation, and greater volatility, Picard said: ‘I can see a plateau in advertising spend, denying revenue growth and sustainability.”
Decline, however, wouldn’t mean the end of newspapers. ‘It means it cannot operate in the way it did. I think we will return to a period like the Fifties when the industry was less financially interesting to investors primarily interested in revenue and growth.
‘We will see less ads, less pages, less sections, and more focused. My advice to editors would be to start killing sections. People reading newspapers in 10 years will want news,’he said.
Another academic said the future belongs to free newspapers. Jane Singer, professor of digital journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, said: ‘Media forms rarely die, but they do evolve.
‘I think we will have more free newspapers, taking advantage of print’s portability, and we will have more newspapers offering context, analysis and opinion – material that cannot be produced or consumed in a hurry.”
The future of news is undoubtedly digital, said Singer, but as newspapers move online to shore up falls in revenue, she warned owners not to get their hopes up.
‘Can money be made online? Yes. Is it the same amount of money from the same sources, that has sustained mass media for generations? Almost certainly not.
‘If newspapers stick with an advertising model I don’t think they will reach the same revenues.”
The mass-market, ad-driven newspaper, said Singer, was a ‘historical anomaly’driven by technological, literacy and commercial factors throughout the past 150 years. These same factors are now driving the medium in a different direction.
She called the process ‘punctuated equilibrium’from the phrase by evolutionary scientist Stephen J Gould.
‘There’s a temptation to see that as a threat – but we should look at it as liberating,’she said.
‘We don’t need journalists to cover minutiae, to spend so much time on things they don’t need to be doing, like sports scores, and press releases, and acting as a ‘middle man’ between a source and their audience.
‘We need journalists to put information into context, to do it without fear or favour.”