Battle Fatigue in the Media

A country’s democracy can only stand firmly on two feet when there is an independent press watching over business, politicians and civil servants. Newspapers exist to present local and other news that may and does impact readers now or in the future. 

Newspapers also exist to explain and clarify what politicians and business are planning or doing. They not only question the current plans and activities but they also present alternatives for debate. Newspapers are the canary in the coal mine, ever wary of the misuse of power and money. Without their independent presence you are stuck with what Big Brother wants to tell you.

We were told that FaceBook and Twitter would save democracy – the opposite has actually happened because of them and others like them! 

The media business must change how it works and looking back to the past will not solve any of the acute challenges facing the good media companies today.

 Your correspondent attended a recent media meeting in Helsinki that focused on the question of the future – “How long will we have our own media?”

This was an excellent opening for this discussion because almost every western European nation have seen dramatic falls in their circulation and advertising revenues. Journalists have lost their jobs and many have had to become “freelance journalists” with substantially lower earnings. 

Fewer journalists and less financial resources have devalued the value of newspapers for readers, and circulation has fallen even more. We have been seeing a vicious circle for too many years already, and urgent action is needed from politicians, from media companies and from readers.

The younger generations, fed on pictures and short soundbites from social media, have stopped reading longer thoughtful articles that are important for their own social and economic well-being. This “dumbing down” has been seen as an opportunity to rake in cash from the unwary by some commercial media companies and by the social media companies. 

Many newspapers, like the yellow press in most countries, are full of pointless articles and deliberate falsehoods to feed the masses – one can take the example of political oligarchs like Murdoch that use their media companies to decry Europe and support Brexit. Likewise the Fox media channels pump out nonsensical stories blindly supporting Trump, who has managed to tell over 13 000 lies and falsehoods, according to the Washington Post. 

As mentioned above, good newspapers have seen big falls in revenues from subscriptions and from advertising. FaceBook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft are continuously “scraping” the news from hard-working journalists where they can without paying. In English they are effectively stealing the work of others.

In retaliation, the many media companies have erected paywalls to stop this abuse. When paywalls work, these same big tech companies then use public service companies as their source of news together with the headlines from the media companies’ websites.

This must be stopped by politicians writing better regulations because these companies are not media companies that employ journalists, they do not write original articles or columns, they are free to publish lies and untrue stories without any sanctions, they use their dominant position to remove advertising revenue from the media companies, and they avoid paying local taxes where they advertise with aggressive tax planning. Again, action is needed from lawmakers here too.

Some media companies have said that public media companies have weaken their own ability to earn sufficient revenues to pay for professional staff. That is nonsense because private media companies are running a very different business model, one that has been very profitable in past decades and one that is urgent need of change to successfully meet today’s massive challenges.

Newspapers do not exist just to publish local news, press releases from companies, or sell jobs, homes, cars and special offers from local shops. 

They have a major role in protecting democracy and explaining significant events, activities and policies that take place at home and abroad. 

Ordinary workers lose their jobs because of Trump’s trade wars, because of money laundering by our banks, because the big tech companies can trample on national media companies, because Luxembourg and Ireland can offer tax avoidance deals to Finnish companies, because private healthcare companies can ruin our public healthcare services by sweeping up doctors and healthcare workers with higher salaries…. This list is very long and covers news and stories that just cannot be ignored because they do affect our every day lives.

There are many ways that the national media companies can and should fight back, but that means refocusing their sales efforts away from just selling full annual subscriptions to readers. 

Solving their financial crisis means taking back control over digital advertising and selling themes, individual articles, and interesting and compelling stories to readers in your own marketing region and elsewhere where new potential exists. 

It is amazing that there have been so few experiments in any part of the global media industry unlike in the music and games industries. Language barriers are no longer a problem – in fact they never have been. Just look at Finland with 300 000 people who use Swedish as their mother tongue. There are millions more who understand Swedish in Finland – why have some meaningful percentage never been seen as real clients for Swedish language publishing houses? In Sweden there are over 500 000 first, second and third generation Finns – why have they never been seen as customers?

New technologies and applications exist today to find and attract such new paying customers for smaller and well defined themes and articles. Just like the music industry Spotify and Apple Music beats CD sales hands down. There is nothing to stop such a development in the media sector and this is a feasible objective so long as the media is publishing excellent relevant articles and news for readers. 

The media companies must recognise that there are so many new types of readers outside their traditional markets. Planning and implementing new strategies should not be too hard so long as you can see further than your own national or regional boundaries. 

The Nordic region is full of the best in the world – why not sell this story without modesty to the rest of the world?

It appears the only thing holding this back these developments are legacy IT systems and perhaps management battle fatigue after years of fighting a losing war against big tech that has armed itself with nuclear options. It is time that David faced up to Goliath.

Picture: The Yellow Press, by L.M. Glackens. Illustration shows William Randolph Hearst as a jester tossing newspapers with headlines such as “Appeals to Passion, Venom, Sensationalism, Attacks on Honest Officials, Strife, Distorted News, Personal Grievance, and Misrepresentation” © Public Domain, File:The Yellow Press by L.M. Glackens.jpg, Created: 12 October 1910

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