The theme of decline – that the press is dying – is in everyone's minds, a bit like a tune you can't get out of your head.
Is it too late? It's a complex issue and there are many components: a crisis in the market and in traditional advertising models, reader distrust as they are attracted to new channels of information, newsrooms lacking the agility to act, slow technological progress, editorial uncertainty, and so on.
It's happening quickly, wiping away more than half a century of history.
The press has clear strengths: a grass-roots approach to digging out information, ethics, specialist expertise, closeness to readers, a well-oiled distribution mechanism.
Now it's time to take a long hard look at the very essence of our role, the DNA of the press and its editorial offering – which has been largely overlooked with the digital transformation. There are still reasons to believe.Some of the talk about strategy has been pompous and designed to impress – a far cry from the reality of resources and editorial ambitionsNicolas Becquet, L'Echo
The progress made so far is noticeable, but it's still just a tremor. Some of the talk about strategy has been pompous and designed to impress - a far cry from the reality of resources and editorial ambitions.
Changes are still possible, but it means making decisions. It means taking those assets that the press has historically had, and using them to create a strong, digital editorial offering. The know-how is there, the skills are available. Yet paradoxically, these riches remain unused. As a result, the press is losing at its own game.
A rich man's problem
In some respects, the problems facing the press could be seen as nice problems to have: too many resources, too much experience and too much energy (albeit poorly channelled) – but despite these, the majority of titles are in such bad financial health.
It's very different from the means and experience that new players in the sector have. The contrast was particularly striking on a recent visit to Blendle, a Dutch start-up that has been called the "iTunes of journalism". Tiny offices, a dozen computers and as many people. But this small business is shaking up the business models of traditional media - and has raised $3m from the New York Times and Axel Springer.
The big media groups already have vast editorial know-how, resources and staff, sales teams to generate revenue and a reader base that is still considerable even if it is declining. But print continues to be a drain on time and resources, compared to the lower costs and often higher leverage to be had online.
Meanwhile, the press continues to produce articles on an industrial scale. But how many of them are visible and read online? The press is awash with content and is struggling to grasp the value and rarity of what it produces.
Advertising: the big misunderstanding
It's a basic part of how the press works that we ask for a double contribution from readers: they agree to buy the paper, and then they agree to be exposed to advertising. This continues to fuel a sort of editorial schizophrenia. Online, the model was built with advertisers in mind first, resulting in a form of editorial disengagement by readers.
The crisis in advertising has forced the media to rethink its monetisation strategies. While the so-called traditional press is making heavy losses, new entrants are making good money from advertisers – sites such as BuzzFeed, Vox and Vice, which are heavily shared on social media and offer free content funded by branded content and native advertising – commercial messages integrated into editorial articles.How much are we willing to let people become confused between journalistic content and sponsored material?Nicolas Becquet, L'Echo
Should we stop blurring these genres? How much are we willing to let people become confused between journalistic content and sponsored material? Does force-feeding our readers really make sense?
Readers want variety – not the same everywhere
When newspapers moved on to the web, they smoothed out some of their editorial quirks and differences to appeal to the broadest possible audience. In doing so, they left a gap - they left readers to fend for themselves in the noise of online opinion and, as a result, weakened readers' sense of "belonging" to a particular title.
It's a paradox because we know that the web has encouraged free speech and individual expression by multiplying the ways that people can express themselves through blogs and social networks.
But instead of acting as a vigilant and engaged watchdog, newspapers online have just taken on the role of amplifying news. The values long defended by newspapers have sometimes been forgotten about. Reinvesting in the editorial side of the web should be a priority. Adding more value to the real-time news cycle shouldn't be an insurmountable goal.The web is without doubt the medium that allows us the greatest freedom to createNicolas Becquet, L'Echo
Interactivity: a missed opportunity
In the beginning, there was a big misunderstanding. We thought online news would act as a live feed of non-stop content, made up of text and photos - a steady stream of real-time info at little cost and, in passing, a way of recycling print articles online.
The web is without doubt the medium that allows us the greatest freedom to create, to loosen the corset of layout and really innovate in terms of content, design and time frame.
But the majority of sites are happy just to keep feeding the news stream without any real ambition - just reacting. By mimicking everyone else, sites are struggling to set their own agenda and stand out from the crowd.
Only data journalism brings pleasant surprises in terms of visualisation and "user experience". But overall, we're doing news on the web in the same way as we would have done on paper, just with more space.
The training of journalists – between good conscience and dusting
The growing number of tools available and the low costs involved in accessing them open doors to new approaches and new work methods.
Unfortunately, the spirit of innovation doesn't reach all the way to the heart of the newsroom. Despite the efforts in bringing together web and print teams to work on cross-disciplinary projects, digital remains a satellite with an obscure function and often considered as a clandestine passenger in the information factory.
Limited in their strategic plan by the reporters' lack of digital agility, editors count on training. A laudable initiative, but one that results in a new paradox: the maladjustment of newsrooms to new forms of journalism. Once back in the newsroom, what are these journalists doing? The priority is still too often looking for a workforce to feed the machine.
A conclusion – if one is needed
If media companies want to really make digital a strategic priority, they will have no choice but to redirect resources and tap into some of the workplace skills and assets that are either dormant or being monopolised by the print edition. Without a multi-platform approach, the quality of content and the relationship with the reader will deteriorate. We must create our own solutions by:
- strengthening the role and the room for manoeuvre given to online teams
- abandoning the idea of making a print product on the web; we must enrich and deepen the experience online
- promoting the web as a key place for investigation, editorial exploration and serving the reader
- stop treating the reader as a consumer and stop believing that the mass advertising model will deliver big riches
Update: this article has been updated with additional paragraphs on the training of journalists.
Nicolas Becquet is a journalist and digital platforms manager for the Belgian daily L'Echo. He blogs at mediatype.be.
Free daily newsletter
- 'Audiences are making a rational decision not to consume news products'
- Five sources of inspiration for journalists on social media
- Media Moments 2022 special with Peter Houston of Media Voices
- How India's The Quint covered Rishi Sunak's first week as UK PM
- Gina Chua, executive editor of Semafor, on a new brand of transparent journalism