Tolling bells for traditional media?

EVERSLEY FilesIf I were a journalist employed by a traditional media house, such as either of the two Barbadian daily newspapers, I would have understandable reason to be concerned about the future from an employment perspective. Similarly, if I were a traditional newspaper publisher, I would be worried about future levels of return on investment in light of current global media trends.

On the other hand, if I were a journalist or publisher associated with a new media venture such as Barbados TODAY which is not only into online electronic newspaper publishing but also delivers news throughout the day via multiple Internet-driven platforms such Twitter and the popular Facebook, I would have justifiable reason to be optimistic about the future.

The world is witnessing an increasing shift in consumer preference for obtaining news and other information via new instead of traditional media sources. Unless traditional media can meaningfully innovate to remain competitive and relevant to the changing needs of the market, it means an increasingly challenging future lies ahead.

The continued viability of the traditional newspaper hinges on coming up with a new business model which will lower operating costs and provide the same flexibility which new media enjoy. Otherwise, the newspaper, as we know it, may very well become a relic of the past sometime before the end of this century, based on current trends.

If I had any doubts about the bleak future facing traditional newspapers which, with radio, were the media my generation grew up on, they were certainly dispelled after reading the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2015. Entitled Tracking the Future of News, the report cited “more compelling evidence about the central role being played by smartphones and a sharp increase in social media for finding, sharing and discovering the news.”

The findings were based on research conducted in 12 leading media markets in mostly developed countries that can be considered trendsetters for the rest of the world. As these trends are expected to gain further momentum over the coming years, newspapers which are already struggling because of declining circulation, advertising revenue and profits are inevitably going to come under more pressure in what will be a battle for their very survival.

Compared with new media, the odds seem considerably stacked against the traditional newspaper. Firstly, not many young people are reading newspapers. We are seeing evidence here in Barbados. Young people 30 years and under, belong to the technological revolution generation which grew up on satellite television and the Internet from the 1990s onwards. And that’s where they turn when they want to find out what is happening.

Secondly, the global trend is towards free news. Such is copiously available via new media channels whereas traditional newspapers are based on a business model centred on the sale of news. Besides the Barbados TODAY app on my Samsung Galaxy cellphone to stay abreast of happenings here in Barbados, I have other apps from reputable news organizations like Reuters, BBC, and Huffington Post to find out what is happening around the world. There is no cost.

Consumers, therefore, are naturally asking why should they have to buy a newspaper, to read essentially the previous day’s news, when they can access the same information online shortly after events occur along with a lot more for free. Admittedly, since the advent of Barbados TODAY, I no longer buy local newspapers on a daily basis as before. If I go somewhere and see a copy, I will browse through the pages more out of curiosity. However, a lot of what I see is what I often would have read online the day before. Undoubtedly, there are several other Barbadians who are
of the same view.

I took out a subscription to the Nation online only because the initial price was reasonable. However, on being informed earlier this year of a sizeable rate increase, I opted not to renew because the product really offered nothing of exceptional value.  Most of what the Nation publishes, I can get full details via Barbados TODAY in a timelier fashion instead of having to wait until the next day.

Barbadians who describe Barbados TODAY as the “Evening Nation” unwittingly provide agreement with and strong confirmation of this view. Increasingly too, the same information is available via Facebook and other social media, including when it comes to photos of traffic accidents and other tragedies which this daily tends to over-emphasize in its news coverage.

Writing in the Reuters Institute report, Emily Bell, Director of the TOW Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University in New York, observed: “News consumption is undergoing two fundamental shifts across the globe. One is the rise in news audiences accessing journalism through their phones and mobile devices; the other, related to this trend, is the increase in people who read or watch news through social platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, WhatsApp or Twitter.”

Unless traditional newspapers can come up with a distinctly different product, they cannot compete effectively with an online entity which is offering the same news and more for free. What also places the traditional newspaper at a disadvantage in relation to new media is that, from a marketing perspective, nothing has proved to be more effective when it comes to attracting consumers than offering something for “free” which gives a unique advantage to new media.

Recognition of this reality has led to the emergence of “free” newspapers in international markets such as Ottawa, Canada. When I lived there in the late 1980s, just before the global communications technology revolution took off, the Citizen and the Sun were the main daily newspapers for purchase. On the morning commute, people on the bus would be seen reading either.

As evidence of the fundamental shift which has taken place, when I returned to Ottawa 21 years later in 2011, Metro and 24 Hours, two free dailies, were what almost everyone was reading on the bus on mornings, if they weren’t checking their cellphones or tablets. On my way home some afternoons, free copies of the Citizen would be available at one central bus stop in downtown Ottawa.

Such giveaways would have been unthinkable 20 years earlier. The same may very well happen in Barbados and other Caribbean markets in the future as more and more people recognize the benefits and switch to online media, such as Barbados TODAY, where they can read news for free on their cell phone, tablet, laptop or PC either at home,
in the office or anywhere else for that matter.

Columbia University’s Emily Bell observes: “These trends are not national phenomena confined to the U.S. or just a few markets. They are playing out all over the world.” Clearly, in the changing media environment, Barbados TODAY is well positioned for the future. The same cannot be said of the two traditional dailies. Their future, in large measure, will be determined by their response to the new marketplace where the consumer’s preference is clearly for free instead of purchased news.

(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email:

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